Sacramento city officials to further study smoking bans in outdoor dining areas

Sacramento City Council members want to examine how smoking bans in outdoor dining areas work in other California cities before crafting an ordinance that would regulate bars and restaurants in the capital city.

“I want to make sure I understand what is out there,” said Councilman Steve Cohn, adding that he was interested in what is – and isn’t – regulated in bans in cities such as San Francisco, San Jose and San Diego.

Tuesday afternoon, Cohn and other members of the Law and Legislation Committee decided to hold off creating a potential ordinance to restrict or ban smoking at restaurant and bar patios in Sacramento.

Under state law, smoking is prohibited in enclosed areas for dining establishments and bars, but the ban does not extend to the outdoors areas attached to such businesses.

According to a list compiled by the American Lung Association in California, 73 cities in the state prohibit smoking in all outdoor dining areas and 42 restrict outdoor smoking with some exceptions. Davis is the only city in the Sacramento region that prohibits smoking in outdoor dining areas, according to the list. Most of the cities with regulations are in the Bay Area or Southern California.

Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents the central city, has been the driving force behind the change. He believes that the city should give priority to public health, and has been in private discussions with restaurateurs, business interests and health advocates for months on the issue.

The committee on Tuesday decided to forgo a staff presentation on the subject, and instead went straight into the public comment period. Nearly 20 people spoke.

About half were health advocates, including a representative from the American Cancer Society, who favor a ban. Many cited the dangers from breathing secondhand smoke, while others noted that similar prohibitions have not hurt businesses in other cities.

At least two people voiced concerns about having electronic cigarettes being included in the smoking ban.

Only one restaurant owner who spoke at the committee meeting Tuesday supported the smoking prohibition.

“People don’t need to have smoke blown in their faces while they’re eating dinner or having drinks,” said Ed Roehr, an owner of Magpie Cafe, which has a smoke-free patio.

Suleka Sun-Lindley, owner of Thai Basil, doesn’t believe that such a ban is necessary, and that customers should be able to choose which establishment they want to patronize.

“You support whoever shares the same values as you,” she said.

Others voiced concerns about the negative effect of more regulation on businesses in a struggling economy.

“Small businesses – the ones that we represent – operate on very thin margins,” said Chris Worden, senior policy manager with Downtown Sacramento Partnership.

He noted that there are 131 bars, restaurants and cafes in the business district, and a survey of the group showed that they were “strongly opposed” to an ordinance that would prohibit smoking in outdoor dining areas.

Councilman Jay Schenirer, committee chairman, directed Tina Lee-Vogt, program manager with the Community Development Department, to obtain more information about the businesses that may be affected by an outdoor dining smoking ban, specifically, how many restaurants, bars, cafes have enclosed vs. outdoor patios, how many are open to family dining and what are the hours for dining, and which restaurants already have non-smoking patios, before deciding on how to proceed.

“We have the best alfresco dining anywhere in the country,” he said. “This is important to our city, but it’s important that we do it right.”

He did not give a deadline for when staff was to report back to the committee for the findings.

Hansen, who was outside the meeting Tuesday, said he wasn’t surprised by the committee’s decision.

“This is the process,” he said afterward. “The city is a very deliberate place.”

He said what he wanted was a healthy discussion. He said he would continue his previous discussions with various stakeholders, and said he hopes that he would have language for an ordinance to take back to the City Council in three to six months.

“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “A lot of places are already doing this.”

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