Calif. Smokers Go Underground

Back when liquor was outlawed, Americans found clever ways to dodge police and have a drink in secrecy and safety.

Today, booze is legal. But in California's restaurants and bars, cigarettes aren't.

Three years ago, voters passed a ban to protect employees from second-hand smoke. Still, many customers are lighting up at establishments that secretly 'accommodate' their habit.

"I think it's fair to say a lot of the bar owners have gone out of their way to avoid the law, to circumvent the law," said Christopher Arriola, assistant district attorney for Santa Clara County. "You do see some sort of what people might call Prohibition-era tactics."

Though police are eager to crack down on the offenders, they come up against organized opposition.

"If a person happens to be around here and they see a car go by, they'll say something," said smoker Ian Hughes.

Communication is key in evading the authorities. Bartender phone trees warn each other of impending busts. All the while, powerful fans work to filter out the telltale signs of smoking.

"Ashtrays are under the bar, so they're not out if somebody should come in ... just if somebody should request one," Arriola said.

While some bars are making a surreptitious end-run around the ban, others are finding mixed success in the courts, using a little known provision in the law that allows their customers to puff away.

Last week, a Southern California bar won exemption from the ban because it has fewer than five employees.

"It's an OSHA law. So basically, we kick out the employees, and you're OK," said Tim Dale, general manager of Le Colonial.

Other establishments provide smoking only rooms.

Police complain that it's not okay that some bars comply with the law while others don't. Still, it seems clear that unless the ban goes the way of Prohibition, smokers — and the bars that welcome them — will continue to find ways around it.