Some customers fired up over smoking in bars

Some customers fired up over smoking in bars »Play Video

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Smoking in bars was banned in California years ago, but some tavern patrons say it's still happening, and they want it stopped. Eyewitness News was contacted about two bars, and the owner says they fall under an exemption. But, local authorities say there are no exceptions to the no-smoking rule, and they continue to crack down when they get complaints.

A viewer complained smoking continues at Stella's Sand Trap on Niles Street and the Grenadier on Columbus Avenue. Eyewitness News sent a photographer into both lounges in the last couple weeks, and video we captured shows people smoking near the pool tables and sitting at the bar.

Those two bars are owned by the same woman, and she says the bars are exempt from the ban on smoking.

The no-smoking rule is part of the state labor code, designed to protect bar employees from cigarette smoke. "In any enclosed work space, that's where smoking is prohibited completely," Bakersfield Fire Battalion Chief Anthony Galagaza explained. "Whether that's a restaurant, whether that's a bar."

The rule went on the books in 1997 under Assembly Bill 13. Fire crews were assigned the job of checking and enforcing violations "Initially, yes -- we had multiple problems," Chief Galagaza said, bar-owners didn't want to ban smoking. Now, both in Bakersfield and the city, officers respond if they get complaints.

The Grenadier Lounge is in Bakersfield jurisdiction, Stella's Sand Trap is in the county.

In Kern County areas, that fire department works with Code Compliance officers under the Environmental Health Department. Director Donna Fenton said her department has not gotten any complaints about Stella's Sand Trap. But, her officers have just been working on complaints about the Tejon Club in Oildale.

Fenton says they've been out several times in the last few weeks. It was March last year, when the Tejon owner was required to go to a hearing. "After a thorough review of the articles in the Labor Code 6404.5 and the interview documents, it is concluded that the El Tejon Club IS NOT EXCEMPTED by Labor Code 6404.05," says the letter from Environmental Health.

Eyewitness News has tried to contact the Tejon owner, but we haven't heard back yet.

The owner of the Grenadier and Stella's Sand Trap says her facilities are exempt because they have five or fewer employees, those workers agree to allow smoking, and the buildings have ventilation directly outside.

Environmental Health Director Donna Fenton says smaller "owner/operator" bars had argued they were exempt from the law, but her department went to county lawyers for clarification. Fenton says those attorneys say there are no loopholes in the law that bans smoking in any workplace.

Fenton forwarded information from the California Department of Public Health, titled "Exemptions and Loopholes in California's Smoke-Free Workplace Law." The material shows smoking is allowed in businesses with five or fewer employees if there's a designated area not accessible to minors, all employees consent to permit smoking and there's direct ventilation outside.

But, the CDPH bulletin also says, "This exemption does NOT applies to bars, restaurants or gaming facilities."

The owner of the Grenadier and Stella's told Eyewitness News while she thinks there is an exemption, she'd like to see the laws changed to close loopholes. That owner maintains other bars do allow smoking, and everyone should play by the same rules.

The law on workplace smoking does allow some exceptions. Smoking is permitted in a certain percent of hotel and motel rooms, and a specific part of their lobbies. Smoking is OK in banquet facilities and meeting rooms, "except during food or beverage functions, setup, service, and cleanup, or when the room is being used for exhibit purposes," the state bulletin reads.

Smoking is allowed in large warehouses with 20 or fewer full-time employees. And it's permitted in tobacco shops, "and in private smokers' lounges, defined as any enclosed area in or attached to a retail or wholesale tobacco shop."

Again, Kern County Environmental Health Director Donna Fenton says there is no exception for bars, and she says enforcement of the smoking ban on all bars, regardless of number of employees, started in 2012.

The letter sent by the county to the Tejon Club says that bar is encouraged to post the "no smoking" sign they provided to the owner. "Routinely, an Environmental Health Specialist will visit your facility to monitor compliance with sinage and no smoking rules," the letter says.

Fenton said that owner appears to have set aside an outdoor smoking area. Fenton said her office got a complaint about the Tejon from a woman who plays pool in tournaments there.

The viewer who contacted Eyewitness News about the Grenadier and Stella's Sand Trap said he used to participate in tournaments at those two bars, but the cigarette smoke bothered him so much he quit going.

Fenton said county code compliance officers will try to work with bar owners. She said they usually give out a warning for the first-time violation and then require an office hearing and possible ticket if there are more violations.

Fire department officials say anyone who spots smoking in a bar should complain to the management. If nothing happens, a patron can call their offices.

"We would take the correction action by actually going out there, talk to the business-owner and try to make them comply," Kern County fireman Sean Collins said.

Bakersfield Fire Department's Galagaza agrees. Officers will investigate complaints they get. "At that point, they'll go in and they'll do a complete investigation," Galagaza says. "Looking or smelling for smoke within the structure."

In the City of Bakersfield, bar patrons can call 326-3911 to report a possible violation. The Kern County Fire Prevention number is 391-7080.

Local officials say the intent is to protect bar workers and their health from cigarette smoke. It is the law, and it's up to the bar-owners to prevent smoking.

"While they can not stop everybody that comes through the door with tobacco products, once they come through their doors -- the 'no smoking' signs should be up there at the entrance," Galagaza says. "It's up to them to regulate that, and make sure it stops."