Since California banned smoking in bars early this year, bartender Oscar Delcastillo has noticed a few things: he's less tired, his eyes don't bother him as much, and he can breathe a lot easier.
Researchers say the Los Angeles bartender is not alone.
Scientists interviewed 53 San Francisco bartenders before the smoking ban took effect in January. At that time, about three-fourths of them reported symptoms of respiratory distress like wheezing, coughing, and phlegm.
Two to three months after the ban was imposed, 59 percent of the bartenders said their symptoms were gone, according to a study in Wednesday's issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Bartenders' lung function also improved, according to a test that measures the rate at which a patient exhales air and the total volume of air exhaled.
While earlier studies have examined the effects of secondhand smoke, especially in children, this is the first to look at a particular group of workers before and after their workplace is cleared of smoke, said the report's lead author, Dr. Mark Eisner.
Tony Zeller, a 36-year-old nonsmoker who tends bar at Stepps in Los Angeles, said it didn't take long for him to notice the difference. "I breathe a lot easier," said Zeller, who has been a bartender for about 14 years.
Delcastillo, 31, a bartender at the nearby restaurant Kachina, has felt less fatigued. "When you're around smoke your body has to work harder to fight it," he said. "It is nice to be able to go home and be able to breathe and smell and not have irritated eyes."
It has been illegal to smoke in most of California's 35,000 bars, casinos, and restaurants since January 1. Bar owners who allow smoking face fines. Enforcement is left up to local agencies, so smoking has certainly not disappeared altogether.
Among the San Francisco bartenders in the study, which was supported with grants from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Institutes of Health, even smokers felt healthier without the secondhand smoke, said Eisner, of the University of California, San Francisco.
"You don't have to wait a long time to see benefits in terms of health," Eisner said. "As little as a month after creating a smoke-free workplace...you see an improvement."
Katherine Plourde, a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society, said she wasn't surprised.
"We knew that this would improve the health of these workers," she said. "Since 1995, all other California workers have had similar workplace protections so it was certainly time it was extended."
But smoker Kimber-Leigh Brizzie, a bartender at a restaurant in San Francisco's financial district, says the ban has its drawbacks.
"Medically, sure, I think we're healthier," she said. "Personally, no, because I have to sneak out into the cold to have a cigarette."
By Kim Curtis