BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- The smoke hasn't cleared yet, but Beverly Hills is poised to become the first U.S. city to end most tobacco sales.
The City Council in the world-renowned enclave of the rich and famous unanimously indicated Tuesday that it's ready to snuff out most sales when it meets again on May 21.
The proposal currently contains a loophole allowing cigarette-loving tourists to obtain smokes at hotels. Three plush cigar lounges would also be exempt from the ordinance.
The city "has always taken the lead when it's come to restricting smoking," Mayor John Mirisch said. "Let us try to be a light to the other cities if we can."
Beverly Hills already restricts the sale of menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products and bans smoking in hotel rooms and restaurants.
Under the proposed law, 24 tobacco-selling establishments — mainly gas stations, grocery stores and convenience markets — would have to clear their shelves of cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products beginning in some cases as early as next year.
Gas station owners denounced the measure at Tuesday's hearing, saying it unfairly targets their businesses and that lost revenue would likely force them to lay off employees. Some said they are considering legal action.
"I've been doing this for 40 years, and I can tell you the main reason people pull into a gas station is for gas and cigarettes," said John Pouldar, whose family has owned a popular Union 76 for decades.
If they can't get both, he added, they'll drive another mile into neighboring Los Angeles and get gas and cigarettes — and maybe a bottle of wine, soda and chips. He estimated the tobacco ban could eat away 30 percent of his business.
Public health advocates say they sympathize but retailers must realize their industry is changing and it's now well-known that the tobacco products they sell harm and even kill people.
"The costs are enormous to the smokers themselves," said William McCarthy, a University of California, Los Angeles, professor of health policy and management who has spent 30 years studying the effects of smoking and ways to curtail it.
"Ninety-percent-plus of smokers try to quit sometime in their lifetime but millions fail to because of their addiction," he said.
Research shows that convenient access to tobacco makes it easier for students to buy and develop a smoking habit, he told the City Council during a two-hour public comment period that featured dozens of speakers and showed the audience was evenly split on the issue.
Some people accused the city of being hypocritical by allowing access to tobacco at cigar lounges and hotels.
"It's obvious it's not an issue about saving people's lives like they've been saying but just self-serving personal interests wanting to look like in the public eye that they're doing something," said Jaime Rojas of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets.
Gary Ross, chairman of the city's health and safety commission, defended the cigar clubs for at least keeping smokers off the streets in the city where people often complain they are inundated by clouds of blue smoke along Rodeo Drive and other glittery shopping streets lined with luxury stores such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany and Cartier.
A lot of the smokers are tourists from Asia and Europe, where smoking is commonplace, said Cezar Diaz, who manages the upscale Sarah Pacini clothing store. The smoke from people lingering outside a restaurant next door sometimes gets so bad that he has to close the door to keep it away from the pricey clothes, he said.
Accommodating tourists was the reason council recommended a concierge be allowed to deliver cigarettes to hotel guests, although they would still have to smoke them outside.
"Our hotels are the lifeblood of our community," Vice Mayor Lester Friedman said.