Public Comment

All Indoor Smoking in Shared Housing Should Be Banned in Berkeley

By Carol Denney
Friday May 03, 2013 - 03:27:00 PM

Dear Editor, Berkeley City Councilmembers, Rent Board Commissioners, and the Berkeley public,

You’re about to get a smokefree housing proposal, possibly more than one competing proposal, in a nearly ten year effort to protect more people in apartments and condominiums from secondhand smoke.

Many well-intentioned and hard working people have put effort into trying to please competing points of view about this issue, and I don’t wish to disparage any particular group or person. But the goal of ensuring clean, healthy air for everyone, even low-income people, in their own homes is getting shipwrecked for the second time in two years by the same dubious concern.

The rent board, perhaps out of concern about looking unfriendly to landlords, is pressuring for a resolution which is absurdly weak. I do not have access to the final wording at this point, but it is looking as though the proposal’s language allows people who currently smoke in their apartments to continue doing so, avoids designating secondhand smoke as a nuisance, and offers little if any protection to people whose health and whose family’s health is being ruined by secondhand smoke exposure. 

It will offer tenants the “right of private action”, a right they already have, and a terrible burden for any tenant, let alone a cancer patient or parents of an asthmatic child. Proof of one causal factor for a medical condition in court is a serious burden to meet, requires enormous time and dedication to accomplish, and may only result in a small monetary award rather than clean air, which ought to be the goal of any smokefree housing regulation. 

I can appreciate that after the seriously bad press the Rent Stabilization Board received this year makes them loathe to take any steps which might be seen as burdening landlords right now. They were portrayed as a bunch of overpaid do-nothings, a bloated bureaucracy. Whatever the truth may be, I’m sure it affected them deeply as individuals and as a group. 

But their dedication to the status quo with respect to secondhand smoke is more than appalling; it is deadly for the majority of Berkeley residents who smoke involuntarily every day and night of their lives. 

It is difficult for me to tell if the reluctance to support smokefree housing is cloaked in the tobacco industry’s typical propaganda ploy, the usual specter of massive noncompliance and legal costs, out of ignorance or to avoid explaining the real reason; the inability of a group crippled by the recent unflattering report with its attendant terrible press coverage to stand strong for public health. 

But I can tell you this. No landlord looks forward to having to manage a building where some people are allowed to smoke, some people are not allowed to smoke, and everyone in the building ends up exposed to secondhand smoke anyway, defeating the public health goal in the first place. 

The rent board advisors love to respond that Berkeley has a lot of turnover that it won’t take long, only a matter of a few years, for grandfathered smokers to clear out of a building. I hope you can imagine how this sounds to a cancer patient, a pregnant woman, a family with children, or anyone who knows the immediate, measurable damage secondhand smoke does and does not live in a student–filled building. 

If anyone raises the specter of massive evictions resulting from smokefree housing regulations, I hope you will simply ask for data. Because they have none. 

If, as some of the rent board commissioners claim, there are unfair landlords who would use the smokefree regulations unfairly, then point out that unfair landlords can use anything to unfairly target low-income tenants; the playing of an instrument, the ownership of a pet, odd sculptures in the garden, etc. Our public health goals should not be sacrificed entirely because of the small ratio of landlords who try to kick out low-income tenants just to increase rents. 

Most of those low-income tenants are nonsmokers. There is no research to support the idea that smokers are any more likely to be targeted for eviction than any other low-income tenant. Low-income tenants in Alameda County who smoke at all are an extreme minority, and a huge majority of them already step outside to smoke. 

100% of those smokers already step outside theaters, restaurants, bars, and workplaces to smoke. None of them have to quit smoking to live in smokefree housing; most of them already do. A majority of smokers support smokefree regulations, comply with restrictions on smoking, and hope to quit someday. 

Please take a look at Richmond and San Rafael’s success in strong smokefree housing laws. Speak to Serena Chen of the American Lung Association ((510) 982-3191), Carol McGruder, African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC), and Dr. Valerie Yerger of UCSF (415-476-2784), who was one of those who crafted and implemented Richmond’s successful law. 

Berkeley’s current policy disproportionately affects African-American families and families of color with low incomes, a group the majority of whom do not smoke and who have the least financial and medical options. Please don’t allow the mythology weakening the potential smokefree regulations coming your way to consign them and other low-income tenants to death and disease. It is time for Berkeley to re-join the frontline it used to lead with strong, protective legislation for people suffering from secondhand smoke exposure. 

Smokers have options; they can stroll outside, use gum, patches, tinctures, lozenges, and yes, they have the option to quit if they can. But the rest of us have to breathe. We have no other options, and we’re counting on you. 

Please, Berkeley City Councilmembers and Rent Board commissioners, at least put a six month’s sunset on indoor smoking in housing with shared walls, and help save lives.-