Unfiltered hazes of smoke from abandoned cigarette butts curl through an open window into a bar, slipping through the cracks in the wall of labor codes that govern smoking at restaurants and bars in downtown Fullerton’s locally famous night scene.
The labor law in California with smoking in places of employment stipulates as of 1998, smoking is prohibited in bars and taverns, yet establishments have found ways to circumvent the law, allowing its patrons to smoke at the bar.
Back Alley Bar & Grill can usually be found with the aroma of burnt tobacco due to the indoor patio with a garage-like opening to the outside area which acts like a patio.
But it connects to the bar through an opening in the wall where ashtrays wait for smokers. To the casual observer, it is unclear whether the space is a patio or a hallway. The general manager maintains the room is a patio and says the bar is in compliance with California Labor Code 6404.5, which states places of employment are not to allow smoking indoors at their establishments.
“It’s pretty ingrained in everybody now that that’s the way it is, so we don’t really get complaints,” said Back Alley Bar and Grill general manager Chris Presta about the indoor covered patio at the bar that allows smoking.
“I think they like that because they can still smoke, and if the weather is like it is today, they could come inside. They can be covered and still smoke and have a good time,” he said.
In 1995, when California first adopted the labor law that prohibits smoking at places of employment, the tobacco industry was under heat for hiding the addictive effect of nicotine in cigarettes. The public seemed ready for changes in the law, accepting that there are harmful effects of cigarette smoke.
California was the first state in the country to pass a law that acknowledges the harmful effects from secondhand smoke. The state passed an indoor-smoking prohibition restriction for restaurants.
Bars and taverns were given four years to prepare for the execution of the law, as the state was also waiting to see if some air vent strong enough to expel cigarette smoke from a building would be invented. But in 1998, bars and taverns crumbled under the restrictions and were forced to comply.
“I’m not a cigarette smoker … but the government shouldn’t dictate what you could do or can’t do with your business,” Presta said, whose father was a smoker and died from lung cancer.
Not all bars initially followed the law, and one bar in Fullerton decided to challenge it in court.
Lucky John’s in Fullerton admitted to violating the smoking law and was cited in January 2000 by the Fullerton Police Department, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Initially in June 2001, Lucky John’s won a court appeal to the Orange County Superior Court, arguing that the California law was unconstitutional.
But the same court later overruled its own verdict and forced Lucky John’s to comply with the California law.
The studies about the harmful effects from secondhand smoke have not changed since the law passed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports “secondhand smoke exposure causes an estimated 3,400 lung cancer deaths annually among adult nonsmokers in the United States,” and nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or work increase their lung cancer risk by 20 to 30 percen
The website also reports secondhand smoke exposure causes an estimated 46,000 heart disease deaths annually among adult nonsmokers in the United States.
According to the CDC, eliminating smoking from buildings is the only way to reduce secondhand smoke. Ventilation systems, separating smokers from nonsmokers and cleaning the air does not remove the risk of secondhand smoke exposure.
“All exposure to secondhand smoke is unhealthy—there is no ‘safe’ level of exposure,” said Nicole Stanfield, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Healthcare Agency, in an email.
Nevertheless, some bars allow patrons to smoke, claiming loopholes in the labor law permit them to smoke indoors.
Cigar shop 8Eightyeight, also in downtown Fullerton, allows their guests to smoke inside the private lounge of their club where there is a bar.
Walking into the shop, customers are led to a front desk where patrons are greeted and asked if they want to try cigars. The room next to that room is a controlled temperature environment where hundreds of cigars line the shelves.
Beyond that room, behind a locked door, which only employees can open with a code, is the lounge where members can sit on lounge chairs and watch television. The full bar is in this room.
The club claims to be a private cigar shop, which is one of the exempt businesses from the no smoking law. But the club also has a full bar. It has about 10 employees who have to sign a waiver saying they don’t mind the secondhand smoke, said general manager Lulu Aguirre.
“Generally it is for members only, and the reason we do that is because it is an indoor smoking establishment, and so we get you to sign a piece of paper that says you’re accepting the fact that it’s indoor and people are smoking,” said Aguirre.
The establishment has been open for more than 16 years—before the labor law was enforced against bars—and did petition for a license to sell alcohol, Aguirre said.
Yet the nature of the rules in the labor code does not state if a privately owned cigar shop is allowed to serve alcohol and not be considered a bar.
The Fullerton Police Department was unable to be reached for comment regarding the matter.
However, Stanfield stated there are some provisions for smoking at bars.
“In order for a small business with fewer than five employees to allow smoking they must meet all of four criteria: 1) Smoking area is not accessible to minors, 2) All employees who enter smoking area consent to permit smoking, 3) Air from the smoking area is exhausted to the outside by an exhaust fan, 4) Employer complies with all applicable state and federal ventilation standards,” Stanfield said.
8Eightyeight employs more than five people.
Adjacent to the cigar shop, Back Alley Bar & Grill does not permit smoking inside its college-trendy establishment. But the indoor patio allows a significant amount of cigarette smoke into the area where the band plays inside the bar.
“I don’t mind the smoking because it’s outside, so if I go to bars I think it’s one of those things that’s normal,” said Deena Iquinas, a customer of the bar who was celebrating her 27th birthday.
Although Iquinas said she feels smoking inside the bar is not a good environment, she agrees that the Back Alley Bar & Grill smells like cigarette smoke, but it does not deter her from going to the establishment.
Cal State Fullerton students frequently drink at Back Alley Bar & Grill, and student Michael Armor, a senior, said the smoke from the patio area annoys him.
“I’m inside and I shouldn’t have to smell smoke,” Armor said. “But I don’t really mind the smell of smoke that much, but I’m not expecting to have to smell smoke.”
At the bar, a “Thank you for not smoking” sign hangs from the green wall next to the wide-open window by the exit to the bar from the patio where people constantly smoke. Above the open window a cheers sign hangs, which looks similar to the old Cheers logo from the TV series—a time when smoking in bars and taverns was legal.
At 9 p.m., the bartender lights a cigarette from behind the bench and places it in an ashtray that sits at the big window opening from the indoor patio.
The bartender puffs his cigarette from behind the bar and blows the smoke towards the opening to the patio. He then tosses the cigarette back in the ashtray and continues serving customers.