Residents say smoking ban enforcement lacking

Residents say smoking ban enforcement lacking

Michele Ellson
secondhand smoke ordinance

Cigarette butts litter a city-owned parking lot in the Park Street shopping district. Photo by Michele Ellson.

Alameda may be home to some of the toughest no-smoking rules in the country, but some are saying that the rules – which are supposed to protect the public from secondhand smoke – are failing to safeguard the public’s health as intended because they aren’t being enforced.

The rules bar smoking in most of the Island’s public places, a fact advertised on signs and window stickers in shop windows along Park and Webster streets. But some say that more enforcement is needed to get people to comply with the law, while others question whether it should have been put on the books without a stronger enforcement mechanism in place.

“I see smoking all the time and nothing is being done,” reader Frank Gonzales wrote on The Alamedan’s Facebook page last week in response to a query seeking readers’ thoughts on the law.

Sergio Luiz E Silva said the smell of cigarettes is “very intense” inside his home, which he shares with his pregnant wife and small child, due to neighbors’ smoke. He said his family called police more than a dozen times to ask them to extinguish neighbors’ smoking, but it hasn’t stopped.

“They talk a little bit with the smokers but they move on – and life is just as brutal as before,” Silva wrote on The Alamedan’s Facebook page.

Assistant City Manager Alex Nguyen said the city has heard the same complaints from people who feel the ban isn’t working. But he said the city is doing everything it can to inform people they’re not allowed to smoke; the city has begun posting signs on light poles in places where smokers might be likely to light up and on the benches just installed on Park Street.

Nguyen said that he thinks it will take time for people to get the message that smoking is not allowed.

“Passing this ordinance, I believe, was a very progressive thing to do. But it doesn’t mean behavior changes overnight,” he said.

While Alameda police are charged with enforcing the law – a task they say they are undertaking – police brass and city staffers have said they expected private citizens to make sure it is followed. The law allows people to file civil suits against offenders, though Nguyen said none had been filed in Alameda since the ban went into effect.

Still, police said they’re enforcing the ban and that they respond to smoking complaints, though they said there are limits to what they can do. Often times, when police do get a call that someone is smoking where they shouldn’t be, the evidence has burned up before they arrive.

“Patrol does enforce it when they do see it,” Detective Michael Ortega said. “We’ll deal with it just like any other violation, like (running) a red light.”

Even so, police said that they don’t always issue citations to smokers when they catch them in the act. Tickets start at $100 for a first violation and can cost $500 for a third violation and beyond.

“It doesn’t always have to be a cite. But we educate the public on it,” Ortega said.

Police used some of the money from a tobacco enforcement grant to conduct compliance checks on Park Street; five citations were issued. The department has received 118 complaints and issued 13 citations so far this year, Alameda Police Lt. Ted Horlbeck said, though he said 82 of the complaints are the result of an “ongoing dispute” between two neighbors. None of the citations were issued as a result of neighbor complaints, he said.

But smokers aren’t the only scofflaws. Nguyen said he’s gotten complaints that some homeowners associations aren’t enforcing the new rules, and a reader pointed out that Alameda South Shore Center still has ashtrays, which the law requires them to remove. South Shore’s general manager, Anil Bhagat, didn’t respond to a call seeking comment.

And perhaps one of the best-known hot spots for smokers is on city-owned property. The parking lot on Central Avenue in the heart of the Park Street shopping district, identified as a reader as a spot where smokers light up, was littered with cigarette butts when a reporter visited last week.

Despite the concerns, though, smokers are a rare sight in Alameda. Just 10 percent of Alameda County’s residents smoke, according to the American Lung Association. During a series of daytime visits and evening visits to the Park Street and Webster Street shopping districts and South Shore, a reporter counted only a handful of smokers.

In addition to a list of public spaces that include public events, shopping corridors, bus stops and beaches, the law bars smoking inside apartments and other attached homes and in public areas around complexes. The Alameda Housing Authority is still working to finalize a smoking ban in all of its units, and the Island’s three major property management firms had bans in place before the rules barring smoking in attached housing went into effect this year.

The housing authority's executive director, Michael Pucci, said he's only had a few complaints about people smoking, while Angie Watson-Hajjem of ECHO Housing, which safeguards tenants’ rights, said she hasn’t heard anything from renters about the law, good or bad.

While many readers said they appreciate being able to shop without breathing in smoke, others said the law forces smokers off the Island, while still others said they think it’s a waste of money to put new rules on the books while others aren’t being enforced.

“In my opinion, if any city is going to ‘ban’ smoking, they should also ban the sale of cigarettes. I'm glad it isn't enforced,” reader Kodie Misiura wrote. “Smoker or not, I believe it's just a way for cities to make more money on fines.”

Nguyen said the law’s purpose is to not to pick on smokers, but to protect the public from secondhand smoke.

“It’s a process,” Nguyen said. “Our goal is to have more and more people learn about this and be respectful of it. That’s the bottom line.”

Related: City seeks social change through smoking ban


Jon Spangler's picture
Submitted by Jon Spangler on Tue, Jul 30, 2013

A tiny handful of official city no-smoking signs has been erected on Park Street itself. but the perimeter of the commercial district remains signless about not smoking. And there are no signs posted that incoming visitors can see from their cars, bikes, or a bus. (One no-smoking sign is hidden behind a stoplight control box in front of Starbuck's at Central and Park: try and find it! )

In contrast, there are three signs prohibiting skateboarding or bicycling on business district sidewalks on one side of Central Avenue just between that Starbuck's and Park Avenue...I invite my fellow readers to actually locate and count the official no-smoking signs posted on Park Street. Do you think the average person (driver, cyclist, pedestrian, bus rider, shopper) can see one without having to look for it?

I have called Alex Nguyen several times about this lack of implementation, especially signage, all over Alameda.

Not much at all has been done since the City laid off Senior Management Analyst Terri Wright, who wrote the ordinance and was implementing it before she lost her job earlier this year. (Wright ordered the signs last year that appear in local parks and on Park Street.) My sense is that city officials are not interested in implementing the ordinance or enforcing it in any meaningful way. I have worked with Alex on some projects but I honestly do not believe his statement that the City of Alameda is "doing all that it can" to implement and enforce this critical ordinance. There is an apparent lack of political will in the City Manager's office and/or at the City Council level to implement the ordinance properly.

Sufficient political will would have resulted in sufficient signage being installed in every commercial district sooner than 18 months after the ordinance's effective date, the presence of additional community education campaigns, plus adequate enforcement as a follow-up. But that would apparently mean asking PSBA to take responsibility...

The Park Street Business Association, which opposed the ordinance--primarily on behalf of its members who own bars, has done far less than the City of Alameda to help implement an ordinance designed to keep its customers healthy so they can keep coming back to shop or dine. (I have yet to see any PSBA-funded public campaigns, signs, ads, or educational materials supporting the ordinance since its passage in 2011, and I am on Park Street almost every day of the week.)

"The devil is in the details"--and in the implementation. Because it still lacks sufficient implementation, the no-smoking ordinance is still not worth the paper or web site space it is printed on. I expected much better from our City Manager's office almost two years after the ordinance was adopted...

Submitted by dbiggs on Tue, Jul 30, 2013

Glad to see they are doing some enforcement on Park Street. I wish they would give some attention to Webster Street. I get that there is a strong correlation between drinking and smoking, and that folks who have been hanging out at a bar are going to want to get out for some "fresh air" and a smoke. The fireside has at least put up some signage discouraging smoking, but the shamrock pub seems to encourage it, with their waitstaff often joining the customers out front (the google street view even shows a group of smokers out front - there's your poster for enforcement!)

golfwriter's picture
Submitted by golfwriter on Tue, Jul 30, 2013

Police said enforcement would not be a priority.
Quite frankly, council should have left the ordinance to public places, and concentrate on that.
Unfortunately, they went residential.
Please consider the over one thousand residents of Alameda who were evicted from the city on the first of the year because council decided to go residential as well as public with this ordinance. Those people endured tremendous hardship. I know quite a few who are now homeless.
IF council had just stuck to public places like Park st, perhaps enforcement there would have been more of a priority.

Submitted by AJ (not verified) on Thu, Sep 19, 2013

For me the issue has been more of a concern in my own residence than while in public places. I may get a whiff of smoke in a public space, but it's usually in passing. When I come home and my apartment is permeated with cigarette smoke from the apartment below me, it is a huge problem. While I feel for people who have been evicted and have become homeless, being forced to vacate my residence and sleep at a friend or family members home because my neighbors find it inconvenient to go outside to smoke (which IS legal) is an incredible hardship on me. I feel that people do have the right to smoke, it shouldn't be outlawed, but when those rights infringe on the rights of others something needs to change.