Residents say smoking ban enforcement lacking
Residents say smoking ban enforcement lacking
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.”