Bars Still Hoping To Be Smoking
Tuesday, July 21, 1998
Bars Still Hoping to Be Smoking
Health: Managers and some customers want end to state ban but doubt recent ruling on secondhand smoke will provide much ammunition.
By STEVE CHAWKINS, Times Staff Writer
Even with a federal judge ruling that secondhand smoke might not be harmful after all, tipplers throughout Ventura County held out faint hope of lighting up at their favorite taprooms any time soon.
That could be the one point on which they agree with anti-smoking activists, who found the ruling upsetting but of little consequence.
"Nothing will change," lamented Jerry Van Winkle, an environmental consultant enjoying the cocktail hour at Tony's Steak and Seafood in Ventura. "The EPA has an agenda, and it has nothing to do with truth or science."
Many tavern managers offered insights not so much on truth or science as on business they'd lost that they felt unlikely to win back. While the decision last week by U.S. District Judge William L. Osteen struck them as a triumph for common sense, it did not seem to signal better times ahead.
On Friday, Osteen concluded after five years of court proceedings that the EPA had wrongly labeled secondhand smoke a carcinogen. The agency relied on faulty science to reach the conclusion it wanted, he found.
Although his ruling will be appealed and has no direct impact on California's strict anti-smoking laws, tobacco companies and smoking activists viewed it as a moral victory.
But that doesn't fill empty bar stools.
"A lot of our regulars just eat and go now," said Jenny Ching, manager of the Sportsman Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge in downtown Ventura. "They don't stay long or drink after dinner like they used to."
Meanwhile, most of the restaurant's employees take more frequent smoke breaks--outside, where Ching has to take a longer time to track them down for customers who need service.
"Hopefully, they'll get the state law changed," she said.
At the Yukon Belle Saloon in Thousand Oaks, owner Tony Sauceda said his business had dropped 30% since Jan. 1, when the California ban on smoking in bars took effect.
Against a backdrop of horse tack, battered license plates and rattlesnake hides, Sauceda rested his thick forearms on the bar and wished the law a speedy reversal.
"It's up to adults to decide whether they want to come in or not," he said. "The option of being able to choose what you want to do is being taken away."
The cry of freedom still colors the long-standing debate over secondhand smoke.
At the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Simi Valley, bartender Hank Calderon, a pack-and-a-half-a-day man, said old vets like their cigarettes and don't like being forced outside to smoke them.
"I don't know why we don't sue the government," joked Calderon, who spent three years in the Aleutians during World War II. "I never smoked until I joined the service." While bar owners say secondhand smoke is an overblown issue, anti-tobacco activists contend that the danger is all too real.
From her Newbury Park home, Esther Schiller recalls the time she spent as a public school teacher in Los Angeles. An asthmatic with chronic bronchitis, Schiller said smoke from an employee lounge would waft into her classroom, aggravating her illnesses.
"After a year and a half of exposure I was no longer able to teach," she said. "My lung power was not sufficient to get me through the day."
Retired on disability and with a workers compensation settlement of about $30,000, Schiller now spends much of her time as a volunteer for Smoke-free Air for Everyone, a group of several hundred Southern Californians who say they were injured by secondhand smoke.
Although the recent ruling disturbed her, she said she doubted it would contribute toward weaker restrictions in California. She pointed to a lengthy study by the state's EPA that condemned secondhand smoke even more harshly than the federal EPA's study.
"The state's own report cannot be discounted," she said.
Nan Waltman, an educator who runs tobacco programs for the county health department, agreed. "One court with one finding is not going to turn everything upside-down," she said. "We know too much."
Waltman cited the California study's linkage of secondhand smoke to heart disease--a connection the federal study did not make.
Still, some bar employees are left wondering whether the ban--billed as a measure for a safer workplace--offers them protections they do not want.
"I think it stinks," said Shirley Hanson, a bartender at Ventura's Star Lounge. "All the employees here smoke anyway. So why can't we smoke?"
The ban hit home in an even bigger way recently at the Star. Hanson said Ventura police officers, who came in seeking people wanted on outstanding warrants, cited two customers and a bartender for smoking.
"I guess they tried to make it worth their while," she said.
Times staff writer Kate Folmar contributed to this story.
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