Noe Valley Voice February 1998

Most Barflies Say Smoking Ban Is a Drag

By Anne Gates

It's a January night and a cold drizzle is falling on Charles, who's huddled outside Noe's Bar at 24th and Church with a damp cigarette in his hand. His drink sits on the bar inside.

"This sucks," says Charles, with a rueful smile.

Poor Charles. It's no fun being one of America's Least Wanted. He's a casualty of Section 6405.5 of the California Labor Code, the law that bans smoking in places of employment. On Jan. 1, 1998, lighting up in a bar became a crime.

How are other bar patrons adjusting to the smoking ban? That's what my editor wanted to know. I was curious, too. So I set out on a tour of 24th Street taverns. It was a dark and stormy night (just like every other night in January). I brought along a friend for companionship, in case the bars turned out to be empty.

We decided to restrict our investigation to the five drinking establishments in "Downtown" Noe Valley. No brass and glass fern bars here, no slick red-leather lounge spots. Just your basic pool tables, dartboards, and jukeboxes to go with your Red Hook or Irish coffee. On a big night, you might find live music or a satellite broadcast of the English soccer final. These bars are the definition of small neighborhood pubs, friendly and enduring. And some of them used to get very very smoky.

Still, Noe Valleons are generally law-abiding citizens. Would they bow to Prohibition and extinguish their cigarettes? Or start a speak-easy, 1998-style?

Armed with a notebook, we roamed from one end of the main drag to the other. By the end of the night we were stumbling a little. It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.

We are happy to report that all five bars dutifully displayed their shiny new "No Smoking" signs in plain sight. And all of the bartenders said their establishments were now non-smoking. Some had even removed the ashtrays.

However, only one bar seemed to be cooperating fully with the smoking ban. A second bar was trying to comply with the law, with middling success. A third seemed to have mixed feelings --and a slightly hazy atmosphere. But a couple of bars were downright scornful of the ban, which gave us sort of a walk-on-the-wild-side thrill. (We emphasize that this was just one night of research. We wanted to go back again and again, but we've got day jobs, too. Should you venture into a local bar, your results might be different.)

Nearly everyone we spoke to said they wished that each bar could decide whether or not to allow smoking on the premises. That way, the customers could pick which ones to patronize.

At one pub (which will remain anonymous), there was a sign that read: "My customers are my business -- repeal the smoking ban." Many patrons here seemed to share this sentiment.

"The ban is an infringement on our rights," said Nate, who smokes. "What will they be taking away next?"

"I smoke very occasionally so I'd like to have the choice," agreed Dave. "Any given bar should be able to decide either 'We allow smoking' or 'We don't allow smoking.'"

Dave wasn't smoking as he said this, but nearly everyone else around us was.

"If the staff at the bar will allow it, there should be smoking permitted," said Annmarie, another smoker against the ban.

A smaller "Repeal the Smoking Ban" sign hung at the Rat & Raven, on 24th near Castro. But here the air was clear. Nevertheless, bartender Storm was annoyed. "Everyone is unhappy about [the ban]," she said. "Yes, it's nicer, it's cleaner, but people don't come to a bar to be healthy. I knew the circumstances when I started working in a bar."

Storm's been pouring shots at the Rat & Raven for six years, and now she feels like she's caught in a trap.

"I know a lot of people want to have a cigarette with their beer," she added. "Now I'm supposed to police smokers or the bar owner gets fined."

Enforcement of the smoking ban is a sticky subject. The bar owner will get the citations and pay the fines if patrons are smoking in the bar and if the bar staff can't convince them to put the cigarettes out. But bartenders, who make a hefty portion of their income from tips, don't like to police their customers. And the bar owners may or may not like those bartenders who fail to enforce the ban.

One bartender on our tour admitted that during the first two weeks of the ban customers would occasionally sneak cigarettes. But he said he was too busy to track down each and every scofflaw.

"Nobody's smoking in here now...I think," he said, sniffing the air. Then a woman lit up a cigarette a few stools away. After a short while, he asked her to take her smoke outside, and she complied.

This bartender said he actually liked the smoking ban, but he added that he was so used to smelling smoke in the air, it might take him a while to notice infractions.

Another bartender told us, "I'm obli-gated to inform the patrons of the statute. But I'm not obligated to enforce it."

Yet another said emphatically, "There's no smoking here!" Then he smiled as a cloud of cigarette smoke wafted by.

City Carries a Big Stick

I later found out that bars which permit smoking -- or which can't keep their patrons from smoking -- can get a stiff ticket from the city's Health Department, not to mention the police.

Thomas Rivard, senior environmental health inspector for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, said all bars in the city would be inspected twice a year to see if they were complying with the no-smoking law. However, if someone made a complaint, they'd send an inspector to the bar within five working days. Nighttime inspections required special arrangements, but they could happen, too.

The first violation carries a fine of $76, which is meant to be a warning, Rivard said. Also, the bar owner would have to attend a public hearing. A second offense could cost six times that much.

"Most people, after the first visit from the health inspector, come into compliance very quickly," said Rivard. "We've been trying to educate people."

He noted that Noe Valley was doing pretty well on the complaint front, with just two (by the third week of January). He refused to say, however, which local bar or bars had received the complaints. He did point out, though, that the neighborhood which had registered the most complaints was the Outer Sunset.

The chances of police storming a smoke-filled bar and issuing citations to all the smokers inside are remote, but it's technically possible, Rivard said. "There are additional penalties for habitual violations, where there's been no genuine effort to implement the law. If necessary, we will bring police to the bar and ticket patrons, and we can and will bring notice to the District Attorney's office for prosecution as a public nuisance."

Rivard went on to say that the only exception to the smoking ban would be if the bar had no employees. "That means no employees at all, ever," he said. To allow smoking, the owner must be the only one working in the bar, or everyone working in the bar must be an owner. "This is a labor code issue, like worker safety."

So far, it's still legal to smoke outside, so bars that have an outdoor space would seem to have a built-in advantage in terms of luring smokers. The Rat & Raven has a small back yard (but it closes at 7 p.m.) and the Peaks on Castro Street has a covered rear patio where patrons can smoke.

Non-Smokers May Do Less Laundry

Meanwhile, back to that drizzly night on the town...

At all five bars, my friend and I managed to find at least one or two non-smokers. They were not doing victory dances on the tables. But they did profess a preference for clean air.

"There's something about people smoking in bars that made the bars what they were, but I prefer non-smoking bars," said Chris, a former smoker sitting at the Rovers Inn, on 24th near Castro. "I used to love to drink and smoke, but I don't like the idea that my secondhand smoke could mess up your life."

Diana, at the Rat, was the happiest non-smoker we found. "I am ecstatic that I can wash my hair, go to a bar, come home, and my hair still smells like shampoo," she said. Rich echoed this comment, as did several others. "It didn't bother me before that people smoked in bars, but this is nice. Tomorrow my clothes won't smell like smoke," he said.

However, even among the non-smokers, there were a few who thought the law unfair. "I'm not a smoker, but people go to bars and they want to have a cigarette. It's a matter of liberty," said Drew, while sipping a drink at the Peaks. Non-smoker Ellie agreed. "I love the ban, but it should be the bar's choice. I enjoy the non-smoking atmosphere, but I don't think it should be mandated by the state."

The state, as it turns out, might not prohibit smoking in bars if a drive to repeal the ban is successful.

But as we paid our tab and left the last bar, we wondered if smoking in bars would soon become a distant memory, like smoking by the office water cooler or on an airplane.

For now, those who won't or can't give up the cigarette habit will be standing out in the rain, just like Charles. M

Editor's Note: As we were putting this issue to bed, the State Assembly voted to repeal the four-week-old ban on smoking in bars and casinos. But smokers should not leave their umbrellas at home just yet. The measure must still be approved by the State Senate and signed by the governor. And even if passed, the repeal wouldn't go into effect until January 1999.