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Smoking ban in California bars widely ignored

smoking In this story: January 23, 1998
Web posted at: 2:20 p.m. EST (1920 GMT)

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- It's proving difficult, if not impossible, to get Californians to obey the new state anti-smoking law that bans lighting up in bars. The no-smoking law, which took effect on New Year's Day, is simply being ignored.

Fire Captain John Kitchens, whose job includes enforcing the law in Los Angeles, says the vague nature of the law makes it hard for him to do his job. Bar owners, he told CNN, only have to:

  • Post "no smoking" signs at all entrances.

  • Make a "reasonable effort" to tell patrons they are not allowed to smoke.

See what were supposed to be the last puffs at a bar in L.A. New Year's Eve
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If a customer decides to smoke anyway, says bar owner David Berryhill, the law "clearly states that you do not have to ask that person to leave -- and so we don't. We have rent bills to make so we don't ask people to go."

One smoker who admits violating the law told CNN that as long as "nobody says anything when I'm in here, I continue to smoke."

And even when someone did say something, the defiant smoker continued to ignore the law, apparently with the blessing of the bar owner.

"The owner asked me to sign something stating there's no smoking in here. So I signed it and you can continue to smoke."

Who to punish: bar owners or smokers?


Bar owners breaking the law could be fined up to $100 for a first offense and up to $7,000 per violation for a series of offenses. The law also allows for fines against smokers but, just as enforcement is proving tricky, so is determining who to punish.

Some municipalities believe it's a labor law and therefore applies only to bar owners, not smokers themselves.

So far, Los Angeles has received only a few complaints and no one has been fined.

As long as "no smoking" signs are posted and patrons are informed of the law, bar owners are off the hook, meaning their smoking customers are free to do as they please.

Law designed to protect health of bar employees

California banned smoking in most indoor workplaces in 1995, including the non-bar areas of restaurants. A temporary exemption for more than 35,000 bars, casinos and bar-restaurants ended on January 1.

The only exempt businesses now are casinos and bars on American Indian reservations and owner-operated businesses with no employees.

California is the first state to ban smoking in most bars and casinos. The ban isn't meant to criminalize smoking, state officials say, but to give employees a workplace free of secondhand smoke, which has been linked to lung cancer, respiratory problems and other illnesses.

Correspondent Greg Lamotte contributed to this report.


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