When the Berkeley City Council voted last November to ban smoking in the city's shopping districts, it was widely viewed as an attempt to deal with the intractable homeless problem on Telegraph and Shattuck avenues. After all, many homeless people smoke, and the measure was part of Mayor Tom Bates' Public Commons for Everyone Initiative. But the new law, which went into effect last month, does more than give police a new weapon to roust the homeless. It's a sweeping prohibition that will likely impact every smoker in the city.
In a recent interview, Bates downplayed the anti-homeless angle and defended the new law on public health grounds. "We banned it in all of the commercial areas because we're concerned about ... the fact that smoking is the number one killer, other than people dying of old age," he said. "And it's costing us incredible amounts of money in the city dealing with smoking-related illness. So it made sense for us to say to people: we don't want you to smoke in our downtown, and if you want to smoke you're going to have to go someplace else."
Berkeley's new ban comes three decades after it was the first city in the nation to legislate smoking sections in restaurants, according to Marcia Brown-Machen, who works in the city's health department. That 1977 line in the sand, designating some Berkeley public spaces as smoke-free, was the beginning of a slow process that continued all the way through the sea-changing law of 1998, when Californians lost the right to smoke in bars, or gained the right to work in one without being poisoned, depending on whom you ask.
But despite Berkeley's historic role as a trendsetter, the city is actually lagging behind other communities in the region in the ever-increasing clash between the rights of those who smoke and those who don't. By comparison, the city of Belmont is the true vanguard of regional antismoking rules. Not only did the Peninsula community precede Berkeley in a total ban on smoking in commercial areas, but it also prohibited smokers from lighting up in their condos or apartments if they have upstairs or downstairs neighbors.
Since last October, every new lease in Belmont has contained mandatory nonsmoking language. So renters and condo buyers must sign on the dotted line, and agree to never smoke at home, before they move in. By the start of next year, every apartment and condo in that city will be covered by this rule, which means that in the years to come, most of the multi-unit housing will be completely smoke-free.
In the East Bay, meanwhile, Dublin has dubbed smoking a "nuisance," thereby allowing nonsmokers to take smokers to court. Oakland, Emeryville, and Albany have banned smoking in outdoor common areas of condos, townhomes, and apartments. So have the counties of Marin, San Mateo, and Contra Costa. Oakland also has banned smoking in many public places and passed a groundbreaking disclosure law that requires landlords to tell prospective renters which apartments have smokers. Albany's City Council passed a similar "landlord disclosure" law last month, which will take effect next week. Hayward just passed a comprehensive ban on smoking in public that takes effect before the end of the month.
In short, the Bay Area, particularly the East Bay, is at the forefront of a burgeoning effort to snuff out smoking nationwide. Antismoking advocates hail all the new laws, but smokers say their rights are being trampled and taken away. Either way, it's not too difficult to imagine a future in which the only place people can light up is in a single-family home — and only if there are no children or neighbors nearby.
The American Lung Association has been leading the antismoking charge, helping cities draft new laws and regulations. Serena Chen, who works in the association's Northern California office and focuses on antismoking efforts in condos and apartments, said that, historically, smoking laws start at the local level and then are later adopted by state governments. In the mid-1990s, three-quarters of Alameda County residents were already covered by local laws banning on-the-job smoking by the time the California legislature made smokeless workplaces the law of the land.
Today, the dangers of secondhand smoke are no longer a matter of serious debate. Even the Bush administration's own surgeon general has concluded that there are no risk-free levels of secondhand smoke, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency considers it to be among the most lethal carcinogens. According to a 2006 report by the California EPA, secondhand smoke kills more than 50,000 people nationwide every year, including 3,400 deaths from lung cancer and 46,000 from heart disease.
The costs to society are also staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States spends more than $167 billion each year in smoke-related healthcare costs. That's a price tag of $3,702 per adult smoker.
A recent study found that smoking outdoors poses risks to nonsmokers, too. Stanford University researchers discovered that under certain conditions, such as sitting near a smoker on a park bench or in an outdoor dining area, the dangers of secondhand-smoke exposure are essentially equal to those indoors. The one major difference is that once a cigarette is extinguished, outside air clears very quickly.
With these facts in mind, the Oakland City Council passed a wide-ranging antismoking ordinance last December that includes prohibitions against smoking in ATM and movie ticket lines, public parks and trails, child-care centers, outdoor eating areas, and at bus stops. The sweeping law also bans smoking in common areas of condos and apartment buildings, unless it's in a landlord-designated outdoor area away from children.
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