By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

The weight of the state may soon be leaning on the many bars and restaurants around Del Norte County which allow smoking despite a state ban.

Although local businesses have been enjoying some leeway up until now, Jack Miller, the lead health educator for Del Norte County, said they will need to react soon because times are changing.

?We don?t want our establishments to get fined by the state,? said Miller. ?Cal OSHA (California branch of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) hasn?t been here yet but they are looking at the smaller counties. Humboldt has about 76 percent compliance rate. Our last survey put Del Norte County at about 60 percent. We?re getting ready to do another survey.?

Cal OSHA fines can be extremely hefty and have put some bars out of business. This happened recently in Shasta County, according to Miller.

?The big counties have a compliance rate that is pretty high,? Miller said. ?But in the smaller counties some people are reluctant to adhere to the law. There was one bar in Shasta where they had a tip jar on the bar. It said ?it?s to help us pay for our fine.? Cal OSHA fined them, and a couple others, $53,000 each.?

Miller said educating businesses is his top priority. Miller?s position with the county is paid for through California?s anti-smoking fund.

?We have people that will go in undercover,? Miller said. ?We?ll go in and do a survey. If there are violations, we?ll go back to them and ask them what we can do to help them comply with the law.?

Some bars openly accept smoking by patrons, with ashtrays placed on bars and tables. Some bars ban smoking completely while others are attempting to find a compromise.

?What we?ve got is a happy medium,? said Joey Wier, owner of Everett?s Club in Crescent City. ?We have an isolated smoking room with plenty of ventilation. Employees don?t go into the smoking areas. If you want a drink in there you have to serve yourself.?

Wier?s concern about keeping his employees and smoking patrons separated is a significant issue with Cal OSHA.

?Basically that?s a worker?s comp(ensation) issue and Cal OSHA will get involved,? said Del Norte County Administration Officer Jeanine Galatioto. ?So if an employee of an establishment complains, that agency will respond.?

According to Galatioto, there are no law enforcement patrols enforcing the anti-smoking laws mainly because there are no local county ordinances on the subject. Without such ordinances, enforcement tends to rely on complaints.

County Clerk of the Board Karen Phillips said a county ordinance was repealed several years ago because the state law superceded it. Crescent City City Attorney Dohn Henion said there is no city ordinance either, describing the matter as a ?hot potato.?

Bar owners who have made the transition to non-smoking establishments have had varying degrees of success.

Steve Wakefield, owner of Northwoods Restaurant and bar on Highway 101, said his business has probably benefitted from the smoking ban.

?We banned smoking some time before it became law. We didn?t like it (smoking) and that was one of our concepts; to be smoke free,? Wakefield said. ?As a non-smoker, I don?t enjoy going to places where it is allowed.?

Although Wakefield?s business has fared well, Tomas Garcia of Torero?s Restaurant said he lost 60-to-70 percent of his bar business since he switched to non-smoking.

Garcia suggested some of his patrons have moved on to bars that are not complying with the law, adding that it would not be financially practical for him to add a smoking section to his building.