Smoke Free Cali -- Lessons NYC Could Learn

While the city council heard debates on the merits of the mayor's proposed smoking ban, California has been living with such a ban for four years. WNYC's Amy Eddings went west to see what may be in store for smokers here.

James Dawson has some advice for New York smokers if Mayor Michael Bloomber'g ban becomes law.

James Dawson: Bring a coat! (Laughs.)

Dawson is dragging on a cigarette outside a jazz club, on a cool evening in San Francisco's North Beach area, a neighborhood packed with bars, nightclubs and restaurants. Smoking in these establishments has been banned in California since 1998. New Yorkers are already used to clusters of smokers during the day, outside office buildings. But if Bloomberg has his way, they'll become a fixture on the curb at night, too, just like smokers in San Francisco.

James Dawson: I mean, sometimes, it's funny, 'cuz if you're in a dive bar, and they have a little patio, there's like, no one in the bar, and there's like, forty people in this 9x12 patio.

Unlike New York's proposed ban, smoking is allowed in outdoor dining areas in California. Some restaurants and bars have pushed back their entrances, to create outdoor cafes. Others have set up sidewalk "smoking corrals," with stanchions and velvet ropes. City health inspector Tom Rivard says compliance has steadily improved, especially in bars, from 50 percent in 1998 to 80 percent last year. But Rivard says his inspectors have had to be vigilant.

Tom Rivard: People can be quite creative in terms of their desire to not implement a law. People would permit smoking and say they had fulfilled their duty by posting a "No Smoking" sign. Or they might make an announcement in the bar, "Please don't smoke," while they would distribute ashtrays to each of the patrons that were smoking. We even came across a situation where they would light cigarettes for patrons while they were saying, "you know, you're not supposed to do that."

The city ended up suing nine establishments to get its point across. La Rocca's Corner was one of them. Health officials say La Rocca received six complaints and one citation before it was taken to court. La Rocca's manager,Tony Bosque:
Tony Bosque: We were sued for unfair business practices, because we allowed smoking and other places didn't. Well, we didn't allow it, it happened. It's a civil law, not a criminal law, so I can't stop you from smoking, I can just tell you not to do it.

Bosque says it's hard to police customers, but, chastened by the litigation, and a fine, he says La Rocca's bartenders are getting patrons to comply. Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco, says enforcement, and an aggressive public education campaign about the law and second hand smoke hazards, will be crucial for making any New York ban work .because he says the tobacco companies will use scofflaws to their political advantage.

Stanton Glantz: What you can expect is that anytime anybody lights up a cigarette in a bar, there will be press releases put out about it. Burson Marsteller, which is the largest PR firm in the world, worked for Phillip Morris and the other cigarette companies here, and for about a year, they were putting out a press release every day or two.

A spokesman for Philip Morris quibbles with Glantz's depiction, saying the public relations firm worked for a tobacco company interest group. He also says no specific New York PR campaigns are in the works, but the company was considering providing money for -- quote -- "those who share our views."

What California did NOT experience in the wake of a ban was a big uptick in noise complaints resulting from sidewalk smokers. That's been a concern for many noise-saturated New York neighborhoods. At yesterday's hearing, Mayor Bloomberg assured councilmembers the police department will keep the peace.

San Francisco cab driver and former smoker Josh Pryor remembered the storm and fury unleashed by the California ban four years ago and today, he wonders what all the fuss was about. He says even the patrons of one of his favorite bars -- a long-time holdout against the ban -- eventually got with the times.

Josh Pryor: One by one, they stopped smoking, and now, it's become so commonplace, that you walk into a bar where there's smoking in there and it's just, it stinks, it doesn't smell right, it seems so normal not to smoke inside. I mean, I remember the days when you could smoke weed in there! (Laughs.)

And so, the biggest lesson New York may learn from San Francisco is that, after all the spirited debates, the smoke-in's and smoke-out's, the dueling PR campaigns and, more than likely, lawsuits .smokers do adapt. For WNYC, I'm Amy Eddings.