Where There's Smoke, There's Ire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

April Lanci, 27, took another drag on a Marlboro Red as she chatted with her friends in a Western-style Van Nuys bar called the Chimney Sweeper. As she exhaled, she was blissfully unaware of the two uniformed men who entered through the leather padded swinging doors and made their way over to her seat in the busy bar.

The men introduced themselves to Lanci. She assumed they were cops looking for underage drinkers. It was only after a moment that she realized they were looking for her: April Lanci, smoking outlaw. One $81 ticket later, the Marlboro G-men were back on Los Angeles' streets, on the hunt.

Despite California's 1995 smoking ban, which makes it illegal to smoke in most indoor workplaces, some renegades refuse to abandon that most illicit of L.A. pleasures: smoking. Stubbornly, they defy the law--at parties, clubs and bars. For the city's only two smoking inspectors, it's a never-ending chase in a place with thousands of bars, cafes and clubs.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game," said Los Angeles Fire Department Inspector Gabriel Orona, 40. "The minute you leave, everybody lights up again."

Orona and his partner Clinton Pruiet, 38, who've worked together for the last six months, receive about 30 complaints a week on their hotline, and spend about two nights each week ferreting out those bars and night spots where people insist on smoking. Their job requires them to be part night owl, part detective. It also requires them to be immune to the slings that come naturally with the turf--the guffaws, the snickers, the snide remarks, the eye rolls.

"We will put up with a lot of verbal abuse, but physical, we won't," Orona said. "I don't take it personal, but [sometimes] I get a little nervous."

On a typical night, the two smoking sleuths meet at their small, fluorescent-lit City Hall office downtown and ready themselves for their sting operations. Checking the complaint log, Pruiet and Orona will prepare for the hunt by poring over the Thomas Guide, deciding where to strike. They usually work until 10 or 11 p.m.; sometimes they stay out past midnight.

Pruiet spent 12 years as a firefighter, and Orona spent 15 before they were promoted to inspectors. It may not be their career goal but as Orona says, "I'll go where they send me and I'll do my best."

On a recent Tuesday, the two (nonsmokers both) decided to hit Koreatown, Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. Before long, they were cruising down Western Avenue in their white Fire Department sedan looking for telltale signs of outlaws. A high-traffic bar with an absence of smokers outside, for instance. It's a sure thing, Orona said, that there are smokers inside.

Things don't always go as planned. Sometimes, owners openly toy with the inspectors. Sometimes, the inspectors are the ones who get busted.

Shortly before 8 p.m., Pruiet parked around the corner from a trendy minimalist bar in Koreatown, a recurring source of complaints. But there was little hiding the conspicuous sedan with its eye-catching city insignia on the door. Or, indeed, the black-and-white uniforms and the purposeful stride of the inspectors. To cite smokers, inspectors need to catch them in the act--often a difficult proposition.

By the time Pruiet and Orona got inside the half-filled bar, the valet had alerted the lawbreakers inside. The air was still blue-gray with smoke but there was nary a lit cigarette in sight. Certainly, no one here was breaking the law.

Instead, all cigarettes had been stubbed out; the flat ashtrays hidden under dinner plates. That's just one of the many tricks smokers use to outwit the Marlboro Men. Some use metal mint boxes for ashtrays. When smokers see the inspectors coming, they stub out their smokes in the box, "cap it, and put it in their pocket," Orona said.

The favorite ruse, by far, involves wet napkins. Smokers soak paper napkins with water, and use them as ashtrays. Messy, yes, but it makes hiding the evidence so easy.

Some smokers openly challenge the inspectors by getting up and walking outside, lit cigarette in hand. These guys don't give chase: "We're not

Catching repeat offenders poses a special challenge.

At a beach-themed tequila bar in Koreatown, the inspectors sneak around a corner outside, ducking under the front windows. "She knows us," Pruiet whispers. "We've been here several times before."

Clearly.

As the manager catches sight of the inspectors, she swoops over tables, snatching butt-filled napkins away from startled patrons.

"Is everything OK?" she asks innocently, clenching the evidence behind her back as Orono and Pruiet walk briskly through the room where, oddly, a cloud lingers under the ceiling.

"Yeah," Orona says, knowing he's been thwarted. "But we'll be back."

Bar owners sometimes conspire with one another against the inspectors. "It's an agreement. 'If they show up in my bar, I'll call you' and vice versa," Orona says.

But owners also conspire against each other, calling the hotline to snitch out competing bars that tolerate smoking.

The Smoke-Free Workplace Act prohibits smoking in any workplace, including bars and taverns. Although the law was passed in 1995, entertainment venues such as bars, casinos and card rooms were given a three-year grace period. Enforcement in those venues began in 1998. Under the law, bar owners and patrons can be cited. For patrons, fines range from $81 to $324. For the owner who allows smoking, fines begin at $100, reaching as much as $7,000 per violation if Cal/OSHA is alerted. The biggest fine in California so far was a whooping $54,000 for a bar owner in Shasta County who repeatedly ignored the ban.

Enforcement varies from city to city. In Santa Monica, for example, the city attorney's office employs one officer who acts on complaints to the agency. In Beverly Hills, smoking enforcement is the purview of the city's building and safety department. In other cities, the police department enforces the ban.

Since the smoking ban is a labor code provision, intended to protect the health of employees, family operated bars are not covered by the law. In L.A., say the inspectors, only a handful of bars are exempt .

At the Tiki Ti, a small Polynesian hut on Sunset Boulevard, customers enjoy tall Mai Tais and something even more exotic than frothy rum drinks: a legal cigarette at the bar.

Mike Buhen and Mike Buhen, the 50-year-old father and 27-year-old son behind the bar, would rather endure smoke than lose customers who have been coming to the bar since the elder Buhen's father, Ray, opened the lounge in 1961.

"People come to drink. They come for the atmosphere and they come to smoke," says the older Buhen, adding he hopes the ban will be repealed. "People will smoke regardless."

Rose Feldman, a first-time customer who was there with her boyfriend, said she so missed smoking legally at a bar that she would happily drive from her home in Whittier to the bar in Hollywood again to enjoy a cigarette with her drink. Being able to smoke guiltlessly, without having to look over her shoulder, felt as good as a long drag on her Marlboro light.

"You don't feel like an animal, having to be herded outside," said Feldman, 47. "We'll definitely be back."

Many share her enthusiasm. On weekends, a young crowd often waits in a line that snakes around the block to get into the Tiki-Ti.

Most restaurants with bars follow the law but inspectors estimate about 20% of Los Angeles' other watering holes (freestanding bars, mostly) do not comply, and control is spotty. The ban is hard to enforce with only two inspectors. Smokers "play the odds," Orona observes grimly, knowing they are not in his favor. Since the fire department began enforcing the ban, inspectors have issued 350 citations and estimate that they have visited close to 500 bars.

"If you look at the majority of [bars], they are in compliance," said Dian Kiser, co-director of the Sacramento-based anti-smoking group Breath. "For some, maybe it's taken a little bit longer. It's been a lengthy educational period [and] it's taken a few extra years for stand alone bars to come on board." Still, she adds, not only is compliance increasing, but her group's surveys indicate that smokers are more accepting of the ban than a couple of years ago.

The white sedan glides into a parking space next to a strip club on Coldwater Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood. When the smoking ban took effect, the topless dancers complained they did not feel safe smoking outside. After consulting with inspectors, the club's managers built an outdoor smoking patio enclosed by a 7-foot-wall. (Thanks to the ban, the smoking patio has become a proliferating feature of bar and restaurant life.) On this evening, a couple of the dancers share cigarettes on the patio. Inside, customers observe the ban. The inspectors leave without ticketing anyone.

"You are the good pupils in the class," Orona says to the manager on his way out.

The tally for the night so far: five bars, eight tickets. There will be one more stop and two more tickets before their shift ends.

Orona and Pruiet park and stroll into the Chimney Sweeper, where they nab Lanci and another customer.

Ignoring the verbal scorn of a couple of customers ("Get a real job"), Pruiet patiently explains the law. He hardly even notices the nasty comments anymore.

He hands Lanci her ticket, sending her, fuming, out the door. "In the sunshine, everybody runs around drinking fruit juice, being all healthy," says Lanci, unhappy about being singled out in the land of smoking outlaws.

"At night, they put on their black clothes, and suck down a Cosmopolitan and a pack of smokes. Smoking is a billion-dollar industry and I'm not doing it all by myself."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°