The smoking lamp is officially out for San Rafael residents living in apartments, condos and other multi-family housing.
An ordinance passed in the upscale Bay Area city a year ago formally took effect last week, establishing what may be the strictest restrictions on smoking in the country. The law is aimed at reducing contact with second-hand smoke and requires smokers who live in homes that share walls, a ceiling or ventilation with other homes to leave their domiciles and get 20 feet away from the building before lighting up.
No sneaking out to the patio, the balcony or some other private perch to indulge one’s habit. Smoke-free signs must be posted on all applicable property and the ordinance is enforced by landlords and property owners. Of course, neighbors ratting each other out will be a significant component of enforcement.
The law is similar to a countywide ordinance passed in May 2012, but that one allows owners of buildings with more than 20 units to seek an exemption. Laws prohibiting smoking in public places and other locations where second-hand smoke can be encountered have become more prevalent since science established its danger to health.
The U.S. Surgeon General reported in 2006 that secondhand smoke kills an estimated 50,000 Americans, including 430 infants, a year. And the California Air Resources Board has classified secondhand smoke as a toxic air contaminant. Secondhand smoke can cause severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections and ear infections in infants and children. It has been linked to sudden infant death syndrome.
In the 1990s, California became the first state in the country to ban smoking in bars and restaurants. Earlier this year, Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael) introduced legislation that would essentially duplicate his hometown’s ordinance statewide. Violators would get a warning after the first offense, pay a $100 fine or enroll in a smoking cessation program after the second offense, and pay up to $200 for a third offense.
In making his pitch for the statewide law, Levine argued (pdf) that one-third of the state’s residents live in multi-unit housing and would benefit from its passage. “Whenever a neighbor lights up, everyone in the building smokes with them,” he told the Sacramento Bee.
Brian Augusta, a legislative advocate for the Western Center on Poverty & Law, argued that Levine had it backwards, and that the law would place an unfair burden on low-income people who can’t afford standalone homes. Wealthier people can smoke with impunity. But, he asked, “If smoking is an addiction, and it clearly is, are we telling people that they have to quit smoking—without support—or leave their homes?”
The ordinance would seem to have public support. A 2004 survey by the Center for Tobacco Policy found that 82% of California renters wanted to live in a complex that does not allow smoking nor has a separate smoking section. Around 67% favored a law requiring apartments and attached outdoor areas, like balconies, to be smoke-free.
Levine’s bill, introduced in February, never got a vote on the Assembly or Senate floor.
Meanwhile, a councilman in the city of Berkeley would like to take smoking bans to the next level. Councilman Jesse Arreguin suggested to his colleagues a week ago that they consider an ordinance banning smoking in single-family homes where children, seniors or lodgers live.
Anthony Sanchez, an aide to Arreguin, called it “a non-actionable topic of future consideration.” But where there’s smoke, there’s the prospect of legislation.