City seeks social change through smoking ban

City seeks social change through smoking ban

Michele Ellson
Secondhand smoke ordinance

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.”


Jon Spangler's picture
Submitted by Jon Spangler on Thu, May 31, 2012

The landlord at that meeting probably has not been paying enough attention to his tenants. As a renter for many years before I became a homeowner, I have experienced smoke migrating or infiltrating between apartments many times and in various ways.

Sometimes tobacco smoke wafted out of a nearby smoker's open apartment window and into another (non-smoker's) apartment through an open window. People smoking in common hallways, even if it was prohibited, makes it hard on people with sensitive lungs. Now that we're renting again we occasionally have tobacco smoke wafting inside our place from someone smoking outside.

The new law needs to be enforced. I have seen the law violated on Park Street and had to inhale the results.

As a pedestrian and a bicyclist I wish I could also make smokers keep their tobacco smoke to themselves, either inside their cars or inside heir own lungs if they are walking or cycling. When smokers drive by me with their windows open or they walk by, puffing away, I get a dose of unwanted second-hand smoke.

Banning tobacco smoke entirely would be ideal: perhaps the next ordinance could simply prohibit smokers from exhaling it?

Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Thu, May 31, 2012

The law is well intentioned, but is unlikely to receive much enforcement because of its wide scope. It would have been better to craft a law with narrower restrictions that would be enforced. I see the need for a law like this on public property where those affected cannot easily move to a different location, such as at bus stops. Last night we had dinner at a restaurant while a half-dozen people from an adjacent bar smoked outside the restaurant’s door. Clearly, enforcement is needed in this situation as the smokers are on public property while a private business and its customers suffer the second-hand smoke.

Too many laws that are poorly enforced only breed disrespect for law in general. Laws that are infrequently enforced also create the suspicion that the laws are being selectively enforced against specific groups of people or in specific neighborhoods. For those who are courteous and respectful of others, this type of law is not needed; those who don’t give a damn about others won’t obey it without strict enforcement.

Al Wright's picture
Submitted by Al Wright on Thu, May 31, 2012

I have noticed a big difference in my enjoyment of being in public spaces since January. That's not to say that everybody is obeying the law, but a lot of people are heeding it. If you want to bust someone, just go outside most any bar on Park St late at night; there will be several people outside smoking on the sidewalk. It's annoying when I have to walk past them, but that's not the crowd I feel comfortable confronting. Similarly, you can always find (smell) someone smoking outside Starbucks at Southshore in that patio area.

I think it's pretty bad form for the city to pass an ordinance with no teeth in it, or expecting citizens to enforce it. Does the Police Department even respond if you call them with a complaint in a public area?

After reading about the (few) other cities that also have a no-smokling ordinance, I got to thinking that we have no signs posted in our public areas, so a visitor from another city probably doesn't realize that smoking is not allowed. It could chase away an out of towner that wanted to patronize our shopping areas if they were approached in a rude manner by one of Alameda's most up-standing do-gooders

The city is seeking 'social change' by instituting this ordinance; one has to wonder what could be next? No Big Macs? No Humvees? No skateboards? No tattoos or piercings?

Submitted by frank on Thu, May 31, 2012

I see very few business wit the actual ordinance posted. There are a FEW but if you are going to pass an ordinance the very least you can do is require it to be posted at places like Safeway and Starbucks. I don't see muc smoking at the Starbucks on Park St. but people smoking everywhere at Southshore

golfwriter's picture
Submitted by golfwriter on Thu, May 31, 2012

My mother never smoked, but had more second-hand smoke in the house than anyone could imagine. She is a healthy 92-year-old now living in Rossmoor. My father was in the Manhattan Project, and Oppenheimer, Teller, Lawrence and others were at our house constantly, my father's friends. All chain-smoked. My brother never smoked, and grew up in the same house. He is now retired in Twain Harte, climbing mountains and fording streams. If second-hand smoke is so toxic, why is my mother alive and healthy? Is my brother also just real lucky? Car exhaust is far more toxic than tobacco smoke.

My landlord informed me a couple of weeks ago that the house I have lived in since 1996 will be non-smoking beginning the first of the year. The house has three units. I smoke, as does my neighbor downstairs. The non-smoker has never complained. I get along with my landlord fine, we're the best of friends. But he said the city ordinance just made it too tough to allow smoking. Effective the first of the year, looks like I am evicted. Not only from my home, but from Alameda.

Landlords are using the ordinance to evict tenants who have lived in a rental for a long time. They can charge a lot more money for a new tenant. Evictions are just beginning, but one source tells me to expect around 10,000 to 15,000 evictions from Alameda by the end of the year.

I love Alameda. I have lived here since 1971. I have spent my life in service to the city. I do not have the money to move.

Now I ask, seriously ... is this is just law?

tenealeH's picture
Submitted by tenealeH on Tue, Oct 23, 2012

You had a point, it could be hard to enforce this sort of law. However, we should understand the benefits of these new rules for the population's health as well as our protection from harm of second hand smoke. Certainly, considering ban on smoking in certain areas could be a good measure to promote ones overall well-being and health. Hence, smoking is really dangerous to our health, so probably we should avoid frequent exposure to it.

Submitted by jrutter (not verified) on Thu, Jan 22, 2015

You can buy cigarettes but you cant smoke them? In Alameda California there are 3 or 4 stores on webster and Park St. that sell cigarettes but its illegal to smoke on those street. Its all about the government making money anyway they can, the government has power to shut down big tobacco but they wouldn't dare, too much money. Quit wasting tax payers time and money on these B.S meetings and focus on real problems in Alameda like more schools or adding rooms to current schools, all the schools are way over crowded. Or offer kids free activities such as sport teams. not everyone can afford $200 per kid to play softball, i know its Alameda but not everyone is rich here.