City seeks social change through smoking ban
On a bright afternoon earlier this month, some two dozen landlords and property managers gathered in a meeting room at the main library to discuss the city’s tough new secondhand smoke ordinance.
The city staffer charged with managing implementation of the new rules, which bans smoking in most of the city’s public spaces and will make it illegal to smoke in or near apartments, townhomes and condominiums, endeavored to explain how they will work. But meeting participants repeatedly interrupted her to express their frustration about the potential liabilities and other burdens they felt the rules would impose on them.
“I’ve managed housing for 40 years. I’ve never had anyone complain about smoke between units,” Rich Noble said. “I don’t smoke. But I don’t believe in the city forcing us to enforce their law.”
New rules implemented at the beginning of this year ban smoking in the Island’s commercial corridors and shopping centers, at public events like farmer’s markets and fairs, on beaches and at bus stops. They will also prohibit smoking in all of Alameda’s multi-unit housing as of January 1, 2013.
City staffers charged with implementing the rules have cast them as a step toward a necessary social change akin to efforts to convince Americans to stop littering, and they said the public health benefits the ban offers for the majority of Californians who don’t smoke outweigh concerns about the property rights questions it raises. But landlords and business leaders are grumbling that the rules, which won’t be enforced by the city but by private citizens, unfairly place enforcement and potential legal burdens on them.
“This kind of policy is difficult to implement. There’s always situations we didn’t anticipate,” senior management analyst Terri Wright told the group assembled at the library on May 17. “It’s a social policy. It’s going to take time to get it into the public consciousness.”
Alameda is the latest in a small but growing number of California cities to implement strict secondhand smoke policies. The Peninsula city of Belmont enacted the nation’s first smoking ban, in 2007, to be followed by Dublin, Tiburon, Union City, Richmond and a handful of other cities and counties.
The American Lung Association’s Serena Chen cast the bans as an effort to protect Californians’ right to clean air and a tool for those who are adversely impacted by secondhand smoke to gain relief from its harmful effects. Belmont’s ban was initiated by seniors whose apartment complex suffered a fire that was caused by a smoker, Chen said.
“They said, ‘This is the last place we’re going to live before we go to a nursing home, or the funeral home takes us away. Let us be able to breathe, and have a good last few years of independent life,’” said Chen, who has worked for two decades to combat smoking. She said only 10 percent of Alameda County residents and 12 percent of Californians smoke.
In addition to protecting people who could be harmed by secondhand smoke, Chen said the new policies will help landlords and property managers, who will pay less for insurance and to clean up units after tenants move on.
Business leaders and property managers said that they understand the benefits of the new rules, both for the public’s health and their own pocketbooks. But they are concerned about the ordinance’s enforceability.
“Businesses don’t care for it. (They feel) customers won’t be there because of the smoking ordinance,” the Alameda Chamber of Commerce’s Dede Tabor said. “But very few people are actually adhering to it.”
Property managers and landlords at the May 17 meeting said they fear that under the new rules they could be liable for failing to stop recalcitrant smokers from lighting up in their units or homes. And they said they think the rules are unfair because they exempt single family homeowners while barring owners of condominiums and others who bought into multi-unit developments from smoking.
One Harbor Bay development, for example, contains both single family and attached housing, so single family homeowners will be allowed to smoke in their homes while those in the attached housing will not.
Linda Cazares, who manages the Woodstock cooperative housing, said the rules pose a host of issues for her and her owner-tenants. She said properties occupied by smokers would have to be sold at auction if they were evicted for violating the ban. The cooperative’s common area – smoking is banned within 20 feet of the homes – includes the street, which Cazares said she and her tenants can’t control.
But Wright and Chen said the rules are meant as a common-sense tool for people who are adversely affected by secondhand smoke, and Chen said that residents in a complex could work out agreements among themselves to allow a smoker to keep practicing their habit. The rules do permit smoking areas under some circumstances.
Those charged with implementing such rules in Alameda and one other city that restricts smoking said that they rarely result in lawsuits or citations.
“It’s been pretty quiet over the past few years, to be honest. We really haven’t had a ton of issues come up,” said Roger Bradley, assistant to Dublin City Manager Joni Patillo. The city of 46,000 has an ordinance declaring secondhand smoke a nuisance – which helps residents sue to stop neighbors from smoking – and is extending an existing smoking ban to cover 75 percent of the city’s rental units by January 1, Bradley said.
George Kay, executive director of the Community of Harbor Bay Isle, a master homeowners association for Harbor Bay’s neighborhoods, said he’s gotten one complaint from a resident regarding secondhand smoke. But Kay, an asthmatic who doesn’t smoke, said that while his association is implementing the ban, he’s wondering how enforcement of the law will work.
Police Lt. Paul Rolleri said the department has gotten just three calls for service in connection with the smoking ban over the past five months and a handful of e-mails about enforcement of the rules, but that officers haven’t issued any citations for violations of the ban.
“We take the ordinance seriously, but believe compliance can usually be accomplished through self-policing by both the merchants and their patrons,” Rolleri said. “We prefer to give warnings over citations, but we will cite as the ordinance permits if all other options have been exhausted.”
Chen said the Island’s three major property management firms already have no-smoking policies in place, and the Alameda Housing Authority is finalizing a ban on smoking in the complexes it owns and operates.
The Housing Authority began imposing no-smoking policies on its complexes in 2008, after an Independence Plaza resident with emphysema asked for help dealing with a neighbor who was a heavy smoker, director Michael Pucci said. Pucci, who said a survey showed that fewer than 10 of Independence Plaza’s 186 residents smoked, said half the authority’s 579 units are smoke free and that the rest will be by the end of this year.
Pucci said that the ban has resulted in a single warning to a smoker and that no one has been evicted from the Housing Authority’s properties as a result of it. Like the citywide ban, the authority’s is enforced by citizens.
“People do think it’s their right to smoke. But it’s not their right,” Pucci said. “I think we’re going to see more of this.”