Is this ashtray-free patio table the future of Midtown restaurants? Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen is in favor of an ordinance to ban outdoor public smoking at restaurants and bars. Photo: Lovelle  Harris

Is this ashtray-free patio table the future of Midtown restaurants? Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen is in favor of an ordinance to ban outdoor public smoking at restaurants and bars.
Photo: Lovelle Harris

Sacramento City Councilman Steve Hansen proposes outdoor-smoking ban at secret meeting

Originally published in Sacramento News & Review on 01.02.14

By Lovelle Harris

Last month, a coterie of Sacramento’s most influential restaurant and bar magnates sat down with Councilman Steve Hansen and other local business leaders to sip coffee and debate cigarettes. The closed-to-the-press meeting at a Midtown cafe centered around one divisive question: Should the city outlaw smoking on restaurant patios and outdoor areas that extend into the public space?

Hansen is in favor of an ordinance banning the practice, and although details of such an ordinance are still being worked out and have yet to be presented to the city council’s Law and Legislation Committee, a proposal could potentially target all outdoor public smoking areas at restaurants and bars.

“Everything is on the table,” said Hansen.

But many restaurateurs, who generate a hefty chunk of tax revenue in the councilman’s district, think the proposal is full of hot air.

“I can only speak for myself, [but] I am definitely not in favor of a ban,” said Matt Nurge, co-owner of The Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar. “And I say that as person who smoked for 20 years and quit six years ago, and as a nonsmoker who can’t stand the smell of smoke anymore.”

Nurge is not alone in that sentiment. Some of the wining-and-dining scene’s brightest names—think Randy Paragary of the Paragary Restaurant Group, Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney’s Building & Loan, Clay Nutting of LowBrau, and Jason Boggs of Shady Lady Saloon—have joined in the campaign to keep their outdoor real estate free from such prohibitions.

“I think it is very hard to craft something that would make sense any better than what we are already doing as experienced restauranteurs,” said Paragary, whose restaurant group operates more than a dozen area eateries. “We are weeding our way through what is appropriate and what isn’t.”

Nurge added that the responsibility of ensuring the comfort of guests ultimately rests with each owner.

“As an owner and manager of a private business, it’s our job already to get a good feel for what our guests’ needs are,” he said. “If I felt that smoking was an issue for my guests, I would make a choice to manage my own smoking times or sections, or what have you.”

Restaurant owners told SN&R they’ve already mitigated smoking concerns at their establishments and say there’s no need for an outdoor ban. They also contend the city is trying to dictate to them how to run their operations.

Despite concerns from a big-money segment of the business community, the topic remains on the table.

Midtown Business Association executive director Emily Baime Michaels told SN&R the December 10 meeting at Paragary’s own Cafe Bernardo Midtown was simply a chance to “talk through potential nuances” of a smoking ban and discuss “what is the best fit for our businesses in order to do business.”

Hansen, who represents Sacramento’s downtown and Midtown neighborhoods, is working with the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association on the proposed ban. He promised an inclusive process with opportunities for public comment at future city council meetings. He said the goal of any ordinance is in the interest of public health and to reduce smoking-related deaths and illnesses.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to particulate matter 2.5, an airborne pollutant produced by cigarettes, wood-burning stoves, diesel engines and other forms of combustion, can lead to serious health problems, including asthma attacks, chronic bronchitis, irregular heartbeat, nonfatal heart attacks, and even premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

While there are hundreds of studies linking indoor secondhand smoke to health problems like heart disease, there’s been little study of the potential dangers of inhaling secondhand smoke in open-air spaces. The first in-depth exploration of its impact on air quality at sidewalk cafes was published in 2007 by a team from Stanford University in the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association. The study found that a nonsmoker sitting a few feet downwind from cigarette smoke is likely to be exposed to significant levels of polluted air.

The lack of scholarly data hasn’t stopped outdoor bans from taking off. In California, the rules can apply to sidewalks, parks, bus stops, street fairs and festivals, in addition to outdoor dining patios. Just this year, the city of San Rafael enacted an ordinance prohibiting smoking in residences with shared walls—possibly the strictest anti-smoking law in the United States.

Despite opposing views on whether such an ordinance is needed, Hansen and Baime Michaels said the initial meeting went well.

“It it was productive,” Baime Michaels said. “I think that both groups feel very strongly that they’d like to collaborate.”

“The restaurateurs and other folks who were there had questions about the process, what other cities had done [and] what the options were,” Hansen recounted. “We had a really good dialogue.”

In California, more than six dozen have banned smoking on restaurant patios, among them Davis, Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco. And while advocates from the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network say there’s no evidence that businesses in these jurisdictions have experienced negative economic ramifications as a result of the ban, many restaurateurs are not convinced. They favor a model that would include self-policing in lieu of what they view as a one-size-fits-all ordinance.

Nurge expressed concern about a possible “overall ban at bars and restaurants,” especially since different establishments have different business goals. “[The] patio at LowBrau is essentially built for social smoking and hanging out, whereas our restaurant is more built toward an elegant, casual cocktail experience,” he said. “We’re not the same; it’s not the same concept.

“So, to kind of have a blanket rule just seems shortsighted in the end.”

Sacramento’s biggest restaurant maven, meanwhile, suggested he was open to self-imposed regulations that might be working elsewhere, if not a new law.

“Rather than us trying to invent something, we’re hopeful that there are some successful models in other communities that we can take a look at and emulate,” Paragary said.

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