Californians Drink Up Smoking Ban
MONDAY, Nov. 27 (HealthScout) --Smoke-filled taverns are about as hard to find in California these days as a set of snow tires. But nearly three-fourths of California bar-goers seem to like it that way, claims a new poll.
However, critics of the survey say it fails to represent the views of diehard bar patrons, who have quite different opinions about the benefits of a smoke-free environment.
California, which has some of the nation's most aggressive anti-tobacco laws, bans smoking in almost all establishments that serve alcohol. The ban stems from the Golden State's prohibition against smoking in most indoor workplaces, an effort to protect employees that took effect in 1995. Smoking is allowed only in workplace areas that have separate ventilation systems.
The state extended the ban to bars and taverns on Jan. 1, 1998, after several skirmishes with bar owners.
Only Vermont and Utah, which ban all smoking in restaurants, have stricter anti-smoking laws affecting the food-service business.
California bars may allow smoking inside only if all the employees are part or full owners, says Ken August, a spokesman for the California Department of Health Services, which commissioned the survey. As a result, many bars have turned to serving drinks on outdoor patios, where smoking is allowed, but not all bar owners can expand in that way because of zoning restrictions.
The poll, a telephone survey of 1,000 bar patrons conducted over the summer, found that 73 percent of those surveyed approve of the law banning smoking in bars. That's an increase from an approval rate of 59 percent in 1998. The poll has a 3 percent margin of error.
People had to have visited a bar -- either a stand-alone establishment or one in a restaurant -- at least once in the past year to participate in the survey.
Among smokers who participated, the percentage that supports the anti-smoking law rose from 24 percent to 44 percent, although 51 percent still disapprove, the survey says.
"The overwhelming majority of Californians do not smoke, and those that do don't want to see their secondhand smoke harm their friends, neighbors or favorite bartenders," August says.
The number of bar patrons who say they smoked inside the last time they visited a bar dropped to 14 percent from 25 percent two years ago. State officials interpret that as a sign that more patrons are following the law.
"You can go into almost any restaurant in California and find a smoke-free atmosphere," August says. "It's not because there is someone lurking behind a palm tree ready to issue a citation to a diner who wants to have a cigarette. It's because smokers recognize that their smoking may harm others around them so they get up and go outside."
But the poll has its critics. Logan Jenkins, a columnist with the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper, blasts the survey.
"Not one pollster stuck his head into one single bar and asked one barfly what he thought of the ban," Jenkins wrote in a recent column. "Forty percent of the respondents said they visited a bar less than once a month, 25 percent once a month and 17 percent said they ducked in two to three times a month. Not exactly my idea of bar regulars."
Stephen A. Zolezzi, who represents bar owners in San Diego County, seems to agree. From 70 percent to 90 percent of the people who patronize stand-alone neighborhood bars like to light up, Zolezzi says.
"They're either not coming in, or they're not staying as long as they used to," says Zolezzi, executive vice president of the Food and Beverage Association of San Diego County. "They're coming in for one or two drinks and then leaving. Even with a patio, you're going to get some people who don't want to go [outside]."
And, like Jenkins, Zolezzi questions why the pollsters didn't bother to enter bars to interview people. All questioning was done by phone.
The idea was to poll all kinds of bar patrons, not just those who go to stand-alone bars, August says. About 30,000 of the 35,000 bars in California are in restaurants, so their patrons had to be interviewed, too, he says. August describes the poll, conducted by the Field Research Corp., as "an accurate, well-done survey."
About 18.7 percent of Californians smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only Hawaii and Utah have lower smoking rates.
But California bar-goers continue to complain about the smoking ban, although they're getting used to it over time, Zolezzi says.
"We don't have any alternatives here," he said. "It is the law."
What To Do
If you're interested in changing your state laws on smoking, contact your local state legislators.
To see a map depicting state laws on smoking in restaurants, visit the CDC online.
For information or advice on quitting smoking, check out QuitNet or the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health. And, for information on the dangers of smoking, go to the American Cancer Society Web site.
Or, you might want to read previous HealthScout articles on quitting smoking and secondhand smoke.