San Luis Obispo: The First City with a Major Public Smoking Ban

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, front, promotes the city's new smoking ban with L.A. County Health Officer Dr. Jonathan Fielding behind him | Photo by L.A. Quits

Citizens of "America's Happiest City" -- that, according to a National Geographic published book that Oprah got wind of -- are taking note of the outdoor smoking ban that becomes law in Los Angeles today. Why are we interested? Well, not only did San Luis Obispo initiate its own outdoor smoking ban last year, the city also holds the distinction of being the first municipality in the world -- yes, in the world -- to successfully ban smoking in all public buildings, including bars and restaurants over 20 years ago.

This all happened in a town with the population of about 44,000, which by comparison, is currently 1% of the Los Angeles population. It would be obvious to most observers that fewer people may pose fewer problems in initiating such a monumental change in human behavioral patterns.

A smoking sign in SLO
The SLO ban-the-smokes ordinance started with a period of civic discussion and eventually a motion by a city councilman in early June 1990. After time for community debate and efforts by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. to defeat the ban, the ordinance was passed by the City Council on a 4-1 vote on June 19, 1990 and became law a short time after on August 2 of that year.

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Within 12 months only one bartender was cited for "serving" a person who was smoking. No tickets were handed out to smokers. A judge fined the barkeep $45, essentially because her employers failed to post a no smoking sign, but took issue with the charge of violating the city's prohibition against "serving" a person who is smoking because it was too general of a term. So that charge was dropped with the recommendation that if bartenders were to be cited, then smokers should be too.

The City Attorney also decided against having "tobacco cops" who may cite tourists and eventually drive away an important element of the county's economy.

Over time, as city officials worked with watering hole proprietors, non-smokers issued complaints to smokers and attorneys backed off, mentally file away concerns of constitutional issues, the rule of law eventually became commonly accepted behavior. Our sports bars that feature big-screen, B.B.Q., burgers and beer thrive without tobacco users. Our quaint bistros and cafes prosper without smokers. And our current generation of college students have no concept of times past when people smoked on airline flights, performing arts venues, movie theaters, bars and restaurants. So now in SLO we walk, jog, run, swim or bike without the respiratory side effects connected to cigarettes (And, Oprah, that's another reason we're so happy).

Over 100 years ago a German immigrant named Kluver came to SLO and opened a cigar factory in the middle of town. The building still stands on Higuera Street, recently retrofitted, with the year 1897 proudly displayed on the front fascia. It now houses one of the most popular restaurants in town, featuring a beautiful patio overlooking the San Luis Creek. A stone staircase leads down so kids can barefoot in the water. Today, it would be totally unacceptable, by patrons as well as proprietors, if someone walked into the building, or the patio, or the creek bed and lit a cigar, as many did 100 years ago.

SLO is a college town (Cal Poly, SLO and Cuesta Community College) so you often find students anxious to conduct post smoke ban surveys and write reports as senior projects. One poll found that 75% of city residents favored the smoking ban. Another found 73.5% favored the ban with even 36% of smokers siding with them. Yes, it is true, smoking inside publicly used buildings in most of California is no longer acceptable, and the next big test is accepting the idea of smoking only in designated outdoor areas.

Apparently the idea of banning indoors public smoking is being tried in Europe (wow, that's a revelation! They sure like their smokes over there). It would be hard for anyone in San Francisco, L.A. or SLO to imagine a Parisian couple finishing their bottle of vintage Claret after another world class culinary experience and then walk out the door to 10 feet from the building just to light up.

Good luck to you in L.A., and to us in SLO, on this effort. We may have to compare notes in subsequent years.

Leon Koenen, a self-described "history junkie," is a retired high school teacher of 32 years, 23 of which were spent in San Luis Obispo. He currently volunteers around the county, including the History Center of San Luis Obispo County.

The smoking sign photo used on this post is by Filckr user shawnogram. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

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