• U.S.

Living: Hands Up and Butts Out!

5 minute read
Martha Smilgis

“It’s like the Old West. Whoever draws his gun first wins. Someone lights a cigarette, and another person says, ‘You can’t smoke here.’ Then the first says, ‘I dare you to do something about it.’ And there goes the peace and tranquillity of an evening meal.”

— Joe Patti, owner of La Famiglia restaurant

On April 3 a new era began in Beverly Hills: smoking was banned in restaurants and retail stores. Three weeks later many cigarettes remain unlit but scorched tempers are flaring. In cafes and restaurants throughout this clean, orderly city, known for its per capita wealth and celebrity residents, vociferous smokers are shrieking that the new ordinance is fascist, Communist and tyrannical. “It’s the People’s Republic of Beverly Hills,” fumes Irene Robbins, a bookkeeper for the Mandarin, a Chinese restaurant one block from Rodeo Drive. “The smog is ten times worse than anything you’re going to breathe sitting through dinner with a smoker,” insists Ronnie Fondell, puffing away at an outdoor table at Caffe Roma, a lively bistro where sleek Europeans come to meet and gawk. “Why not take cars off the street, booze off the bar and prohibit anything else anyone ever said was bad for you,” grumbles a patron at the Grill, popular with the business-lunch crowd.

More rebellious customers have taken action. At Larry Parker’s pricey 24- Hour Diner one recent afternoon, an annoyed patron yanked a woman’s hair as he walked out because she refused to put out her cigarette. At Cafe Beverly Hills, an upscale coffee shop, an elderly man punched his female companion when she told him he must snuff his cigar. “I’ve been smoking for 92 years,” said the patron. “No one is going to tell me where I can smoke.”

But such celebrity diners as Actor Carroll O’Connor, owner and occasional piano player at the Ginger Man, and cigar-puffing George Burns are willing to conform. “I’ll do whatever the city wants,” says O’Connor stoically. Debbie Parker, a ban supporter who has a water pistol emblazoned with the words STOP OR I’LL SHOOT, says, “Smokers have had a lack of consideration for others for a long time. Now the tables are turned.” The Beverly Hills police — famed for their vigilance in cracking down on jaywalking, illegal parking and attempted burglary — are so far going slowly. They have made no arrests and answered only two calls; one was a smoking complaint, and the other involved a nicotine lover who went berserk about the ordinance.

The Beverly Hills ban is part of a pulmonary consciousness sweeping the land, fueled by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s report that secondhand, or “sidestream,” smoke can have a negative effect on the health of nonsmokers. Two years ago Aspen, Colo., passed the first law to prohibit smoking in most dining rooms. On May 7 New York State will join the trend, restricting smokers in restaurants with 51 or more seats to designated areas. The Beverly Hills ordinance, passed unanimously by the city council, penalizes disobedient smokers — and restaurants that fail to display no-smoking signs — with fines of up to $500. Mayor Charlotte Spadaro, whose mail is running 2 to 1 in favor of the ban, views it as similar to laws “against pollution and toxic waste, designed to make the environment safe for everyone.”

Because the law is directed at residents, not visitors, hotel dining rooms are exempt; restaurant bars and cocktail lounges are also excluded from the ban. “We understand the relationship between alcohol and cigarettes — we’re not out to reform human nature,” explains former City Attorney Steven Rood. As for hotels, he notes, “French and Italian movie moguls can’t do business without a cigarette in their mouth.” Such reasoning does not satisfy restaurant owners. Vito Sasso, proprietor of the romantic Romeo and Juliet, argues that he too has foreign customers, citing one wealthy visitor who orders several $500 bottles of wine for a dinner tab of $4,000 — which adds up to a month’s rent. “He won’t come in anymore because he can’t smoke,” moans Sasso. “That’s like doubling my rent.”

A local restaurant survey found that since the ban there has been a 30% drop in business. On the first night of the ban, 36 people called Romeo and Juliet to cancel their reservations. Mr. Chow, a chic Chinese eatery, registered a 17% initial decline and 65% two nights later. At the Beverly Hills Hamburger Hamlet, revenues were slashed by $3,000, while business in the chain’s restaurant in nearby West Hollywood was up by the same amount. “The best restaurants are on our borders,” says Joanne Le Bouvier, owner of the Saloon, which experienced a 45% setback. “You can just walk from here to another city. What chance do we have?”

Despite a pending lawsuit by the Beverly Hills Restaurant Association, it is unlikely the law will be repealed. “Posterity may find that this ban was well ahead of its time,” says Patrick Reynolds, an antismoking activist and Beverly Hills resident who saw his father die of emphysema. He is the grandson of R.J. Reynolds, founder of the famed tobacco company.

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