By SARA FISHER

Staff Reporter

On the stroke of midnight on New Year's, celebrating Californians in bars throughout the state kissed their dates and stubbed out their cigarettes.

Theoretically.

In fact, smoking in bars continues as owners flout the law and local authorities delay enforcement.

"I now have people bringing in their own ashtrays to the bar," said Mary Woods, owner of the Sutter's Mill bar and restaurant in Mission Hills.

"Since I don't think I can ask them to leave under the law, I have them sign a paper saying that they've been warned that they can't smoke here," Woods said. "Actually, I have a jar out for donations, which has enough to cover the first fine. We'll see if the law is still in effect by the time I get a second."

Although a state law taking effect Jan. 1 banned smoking in bars, enforcement was left up to local authorities and has been far from uniform.

The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, for example, has essentially given bar smokers in unincorporated areas amnesty until about March 1.

"We're not going to strictly enforce the ban for the next couple of months," said Ingrid Lamirault, director of the tobacco control program for Los Angeles County. "We're waiting for peer pressure and public education efforts to take effect before we take legal action."

The city of Los Angeles, by contrast, already is enforcing the law but violators are given at least two chances to stamp out smoking.

"We were enforcing the ban as of the moment it went into effect, but we've only had a few complaints so far," said Ted Goldstein, spokesman for the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office, the agency responsible for enforcing the new law. "We're hoping that our system of warning letters will serve as the education and adjustment process that the county endorses."

Goldstein said he had not gotten any complaints about Sutter's Mill, which is in the city's jurisdiction.

Upon receiving a call or a written complaint, the City Attorney's Office will send a letter to the bar advising the proprietors of the complaint and of the law. When a second complaint against an establishment is filed, a more emphatic letter will be sent reminding them of their previous infraction.

After the third complaint, the Los Angeles Fire Department will be asked to send an inspector to the bar, which could result in misdemeanor charges being filed against the owner and/or manager.

"We are not after the smokers and do not plan to cite them," Goldstein said. "We want compliance to come from the bar owners."

However, the City of Santa Monica intends to cite smokers who ignore bar employees' requests to stop smoking. The county is considering a similar policy.

"We have not decided to fine customers for violating the law, but it is under consideration," Lamirault said.

The county's enforcement procedure varies slightly from that of L.A. city. Upon a complaint, the county office will send a letter that explains the new law to the owner. If a subsequent complaint comes in, a staff member from the L.A. county environmental health department will visit the bar.

In order for a bar owner to be cited by the county, however, Lamirault said the inspector must actually see a smoker on the premises and also see that the owner has not taken reasonable actions to stop the smoking, such as asking the person to step outside and not having ash trays available.

The city of Santa Monica has a similar enforcement policy and has been very active in educating its businesses about the law, sending out explanatory letters.

Regardless, compliance was spotty in Santa Monica on the first weekend of the ban. Employees and customers at The Pink, a popular Santa Monica watering hole, were observed smoking. Calls to The Pink for an explanation were not returned.

"Even if employees of a bar agree that they don't mind smoking, they are breaking the law," said Teresa Bransfield, the consumer protection specialist at the Santa Monica City Attorney's office and head of the ban enforcement. "We began enforcing the law immediately, and have had about a dozen or so complaints so far. Next, we have a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce so we can discuss the unfair competition that happens when some bars don't enforce the ban."

For bar owners, the competition between those who enforce the ban and those who don't already is a reality.

Mike Mandekic, owner of Tom Bergin's Irish pub on Fairfax Avenue, said he began enforcing the ban immediately because "I can't take the chance of becoming a poster child for an enforcement agency."

"Business has dropped by around 50 percent," said Mandekic, who estimates that only 75 percent of the bars in his area are complying. "They've taken off to find bars that will let them smoke. But as long as all the bar owners play the game together and go along with the law, business will come back. I have to hope so."

Jim Chambers, manager of the Pineapple Hill Saloon and Grill in Sherman Oaks, has a similar outlook.

"We've lost a few long-time customers," he said. "But they'll come back once all of the bars don't allow smoking."

Conversely, as one of the smoking bars in the area, Sutter's Mill is seeing more patrons.

"I'm actually seeing an increase in customers since people come here to smoke after having been thrown out of other bars," owner Woods said. "I don't particularly like the fact that I'm getting that reputation, but the law is so vague there is no way they're going to be able to enforce it."

A reformed smoker herself, Frances Bush, manager of The Money Tree in Toluca Lake, would like to enforce the ban, but said that for reasons of stark economics, she cannot.

"We have so many belligerent smokers. If I told them they couldn't smoke, they'd just walk out the door," Bush said.

In fact, she added, many of The Money Tree's customers smoke in the bar precisely because their spouses or roommates forbid them from lighting up at home.

Despite these initial rebellions, city and county officials are hopeful that the smoking ban in bars eventually will reach the same successful conclusion as the ban in restaurants.

"We've had 100 percent compliance with the restaurant owners and never had to utilize criminal procedures," L.A. City's Goldstein said. "We're anticipating a similar full compliance with the bars in time."

Senior Reporter Larry Kanter contributed to this story.

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