At some California bars, patrons puff and blow contempt, civil disobedience But early reports show majority obeying new law


LOS ANGELES -- The regulars at the Studio Lounge in Hollywood are cabbies, retired government employees, old soldiers. The white-haired guy at the end of the bar, Jim Fults, served in Korea.

They are much more likely to be Republicans than rebels. But that was before the politicians decided that as of Jan. 1, smoking in virtually every bar, nightclub and hotel lobby in California is illegal.

"This is still America," Fults said as he defiantly lighted his third cigarette in five minutes Thursday, the first day of the new year and the new law, the toughest anti-smoking measure in the United States. "I didn't serve time in the Army to relinquish my rights to a bunch of idiot lawmakers."

Betty Thain, the bartender, handed Fults another beer, emptied his ashtray and said, "I've never seen you smoke this much."

"This is a special occasion," Faults said.

On New Year's Day, as the Rose Bowl football game played on two television sets at either end of the bar, six of the 10 people in the Studio Lounge were puffing on cigarettes and blowing contempt and civil disobedience into the increasingly stale air. The place smelled like old times.

It was the kind of scene that state officials said they expected to see on a small scale for a short time before smokers accept that one of their last and perhaps most sacred public places to indulge their habit has been taken away.

The officials said the overwhelming majority of bar owners and patrons would obey the law, and initial news reports seem to back up their optimism.

"We expect better and better compliance as the year goes on," said Colleen Stevens, spokeswoman for the California Department of Health Services. "Once people get used to smoke-free environments, they cherish them."

Enforcement of the law is up to local and city governments. Bar owners and managers must ask patrons who smoke to stop, but are not required to evict them if they refuse. If someone complains to local health officials that a bar is violating the law, the owner can be fined $100 for the first offense and up to $7,000 for the fourth.

Bars throughout the state began to pack up their ashtrays on the last day of legal smoking, New Year's Eve -- except at places like the Studio Lounge and Boardner's Bar & Grill across the street.

The moment a patron sat down in front of Thain, the bartender at the Studio Lounge, she placed a black plastic ashtray in front of him, "because I know he smokes," she said. "We're having fun defying a stupid law. I keep the ashtrays out of sight, until I need them."

Despite their defiant talk, the smokers were wary about giving their names or having their photographs taken because the "cigarette police" might come looking.

"It could happen," insisted a 44-year-old cabdriver. "Whoever thought the government would outlaw smoking in a bar?"

Pub Date: 1/03/98

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