Outdoor Smoking Ban: West Hollywood's Identity Crisis

West Hollywood is an "anything goes" kind of place. You can wear whatever, think whatever, look however and it's not only OK here, it's expected. Individuality and freedom make up the cornerstone of West Hollywood.

It's also a place for the unusually health-conscious. Not only are there the usual yoga studios, gyms and smoothie shops, but there's easy access to health-care information. The community has been focused and on more than just the buff bods that can result from health: It was one of the first to respond to the AIDS crisis.

And so with the proposal of an outdoor smoking ban this area of Los Angeles has gone into bit of a tizzy. Now it's become a clash of the freedom loving urbanites versus the health-conscious environmentalists
Beverly Hills, Glendale and the City of Los Angeles all have outdoor smoking bans, but WeHo is having a problem with this potential change. Everyone thinks of the Sunset Strip as an area for partying and letting loose, but with this law all that could change.

Steve Gallegos is a longtime public health, anti-smoking advocate. For the past 13 years he has traveled the U.S. and the rest of the world to to protect people from second-hand smoke, and now he has his sights on West Hollywood. Many cities have recruited him to help get anti-smoking bans passed -- and have been successful. Gallegos has a plethora of literature and health studies on the dangers of second-hand smoke and the benefits of making public places smoke-free. He also has stats to show that businesses like restaurants and bars don't suffer for the change. But all this evidence doesn't stop him from facing the same uphill battle in every city in which he campaigns.

Gallegos says: "We see that the arguments from the business community are 'you are taking us into a place we have never been before.' So there is always fear in new policies and change. I know that they have their finances vested in the success of their business, and not just bars and restaurants but mom and pop stores, but there is also a public health concern."

Now Gallegos is working on the Smoke Free Task Force in West Hollywood, as told in the WeHo News. Councilmember Abbe Land introduced the smoking ban for outdoor spaces (i.e. restaurant and bar patios) along with Mayor John Heilman. The Smoking Task Force is meeting to craft the legislation and is made up of "roughly 90 percent" of restaurant and bar owners according to Gallegos.

Gallegos was brought in by Land to work on the issue, and while he is used to businesses' concerns, he says that they need to look at the results from other cities. "Besides the public health benefit, those of use involved in these tobacco control issues have seen an economic benefit to the cities that adopted it -- and proof is that no city that has ever adopted a smoke-free policy has ever rescinded it."

Be that as it may, the WeHo let-everyone-be attitude has led to impassioned meetings on the topic.

The owner of the Eleven nightclub, Richard Grossi, says, "I was supportive of the indoor ban on smoking, which a lot of people were afraid of. And in the three years I've been here I've never had a customer complain about smoke on the patio. Smoking and drinking go hand in hand, it's a cultural thing for people."

Grossi believes the ban would affect business, but as a liberty-loving WeHo he also thinks it is a strange issue for his city. "I think it's against what we stand here for," he says. "I understand politicians see other cities and they feel they have to get on the bandwagon; maybe they don't have the nightlife we do here, with the alternative lifestyles. In West Hollywood I don't see that as working."

Nic Adler, owner of the Roxy and part owner of the Rainbow Room (think Guns N' Roses video and rocker hangout) is torn about it: "As a business owner I don't think its a good idea to a have ban on smoking. As a person that goes out I don't like that." And before you think Adler is some typical rocker bar-owner, the The New York Times called him an Alex P. Keaton type.

"The Sunset Strip is known as a notorious place, it's a nightlife city, we are not Calabasas. It's about going to a rock 'n' roll show and having shots at the bar. And it's about a party, and part of that is people being able to let loose and do what they may. But the problem with smoking is it doesn't just affect you, it's the person next to you."

Adler also has the perspective of having witnessed the push for the indoor smoking ban. "A lot of businesses thought it was going to affect them, but we found it was the norm. When I do see [indoor smoking] now it almost seems weird."

The Rainbow Room with no smoking is kinda like Christmas with no Santa Claus, it just seems wrong. But it might be the way of the future.

The issue will continue to go through the process and while Gallegos is hopeful it will pass, business owners are struggling with it -- as are WeHo citizens. An interesting quandary for this healthy, freedom loving town.

Adler, however, sees a future with eventually one result: "It seems like California will be smoke free within seven years."

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