First, smoking was banned in eating areas. Then it was banned in bars. Now a proposal by the Los Angeles City Council to extinguish smoking on patios has some local restaurant owners fuming.

Already, other cities such as Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Burbank have enacted comparable outdoor bans. That said, L.A.’s ban would be of greater significance to the nationwide restaurant industry as the city’s regulatory decisions have long been seen as precedent setting for other major metro areas.

City Councilman Greig Smith introduced the motion to ban outdoor smoking at restaurants in early 2008. The proposal has undergone various changes by a city committee over the last 18 months and in cooperation with representatives of the restaurant industry.

The ordinance is scheduled for a council vote this month, and is expected to pass. Councilman Tom LaBonge, a proponent of the ordinance, said he believes he has enough support on the council for adoption.

Although many restaurants oppose the ordinance, members of the California Restaurant Association decided that it would be a losing battle to fight it, so instead the association negotiated some exemptions for events and other special cases. The association has a neutral position on the ordinance.

Under provisions negotiated with the association, bars, private events and nightclubs serving customers older than 18 would be exempt from the rule.

Some restaurant owners that have outdoor patios along trendy avenues and neighborhoods believe the ordinance will drive away their smoking customers.

“Business is already down 25-30 percent and now the city wants to tell my customers what they can or can’t do while in an outdoor setting,” said Nicolas Meschin, co-owner of Little Door, a West L.A. Mediterranean cuisine restaurant with a large outdoor patio that offers both smoking and nonsmoking sections. “I think this is a stupid time to pass something like this.”

Madelyn Alfano, owner of the Maria’s Italian Kitchen chain of nine locations, and a board member of both the statewide and L.A. chapter of the California Restaurant Association, said the regulation seems unnecessary. Alfano’s downtown L.A. location has a large patio.

“I have a lot of clientele that come from other countries where smoking is part of the culture,” Alfano said. “I’m not a smoker and wouldn’t want it inside my restaurant, but to say that air pollution is a major concern from outdoor smoking is ridiculous when you have buses and trucks spewing pollution while driving by my outdoor patios all the time.”

However, Andrew Casana, a spokesman for the L.A. chapter of the California Restaurant Association, said some association members believe the tide has turned and more customers oppose smoking than support it.

“Customers are complaining about the smoking, even on outdoor patios, and customers are the ones that dictate how the industry will respond,” Casana said. “The move to ban outdoor smoking is something growing worldwide anyway. Customers want to avoid the health problems spurred by secondhand smoking.”

Expanding ban

The city of Los Angeles has already enacted restrictions on outdoor smoking, banning it from beaches and parks except in special cases, such as filming.

“There is a groundswell of public support on taking these measures to combat secondhand smoke,” said LaBonge, who heads a city health committee that crafted the ordinance.

The ordinance would ban smoking within 10 feet of patio dining areas, and 30 feet around food trucks and kiosks.

The ordinance would require restaurant owners to post signs and ask diners to put their cigarettes out. Police would be allowed to cite uncooperative smokers with fines of up to $250. LaBonge said that restaurants would get a 12-month grace period to post signs.

Alfano said that she asks people to stop smoking if other diners complain.

“Usually people are willing to do so, even if annoyed,” Alfano said. “However, I don’t want for me or my staff to worry about always having to police the restaurant.”

The strongest opposition to the ordinance came from Cigar Rights of America, a trade association representing cigar bars and merchants.

Victor Franco Jr., an L.A.-based lobbyist representing the association, said the proposed ordinance is too broad.

“We don’t think that fine-dining establishments that offer cigars and cognac to their patrons in outdoor patio areas should be penalized because of this ordinance,” he said. “We are not the same as what the city is trying to ban.”

Alfano said an early version of the ordinance would have prevented her from continuing the weekly “cigar night” at her downtown L.A. location. But the proposed ordinance now includes exemptions for such events. She’s still upset, though, because she feels other cities are more permissive in regard to smoking.

“I’m fond of many on the City Council but think this decision is a poor one and sets us apart unfavorably from other big cities worldwide that have designated outdoor spots for smokers,” Alfano said. “We want to be a welcoming city for everyone.”

Other restaurants are already discouraging patrons from lighting up.

At Toast Café, a breakfast-themed restaurant on Third Street in West Los Angeles where celebrities such as Paris Hilton often are photographed by paparazzi, general manager Kenny Allan already asks patrons seated outdoors to refrain from smoking at their tables.

“There’s usually kids with many of our customers who don’t want them exposed to smoke, and people in general are pretty health conscious around here,” Allan said. “We know we can’t enforce that policy too harshly but will ask politely once. I guess now we’re going to have to, either way.”

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