Public Comment

New: Whatever You’re Smoking, Simply Step Outside

By Carol Denney
Saturday June 08, 2013 - 11:49:00 AM

If you thought the discussion about smoking regulations in multi-unit housing at the Berkeley City Council would naturally be about ways to make sure all tenants have the right to clean, breathable air, you would be wrong.

The current proposal “grandfathers” in all smokers forever, and offers tenants affected by secondhand smoke the right to sue their neighbor, a right they already have. But get this; you can’t sue per cigarette, or even per radiation treatment. Councilmembers such as Jesse Arreguin were eager to put a “cap” of $1,500 per year on a successful suit for exposure. Imagine how far that goes toward paying for your surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. And anyone who sues his or her neighbor lives in hell whatever the outcome.

The health department and the rent board representatives did a great job of illustrating how exhausted they are with the subject, how ready they are to sacrifice the public health goal of clean, healthy air for an endpoint of any kind, no matter how counter-productive. All it takes is one smoker per building to make 100% of the air toxic, but they're ready to call that "a balanced approach." 

At least three councilmembers mused about their personal difficulties quitting smoking. This is a very bad sign. No one has to quit smoking to live in smokefree housing. In fact, most smokers in Alameda County already do. 

But another several of the council scratched their heads over the obvious common sense step the city should take to take the burden off of low-income tenants, most of whom don’t have health coverage, can’t afford lawyers, and can’t afford to move – designate secondhand smoke as a nuisance, the same as a barking dog, as Councilmember Wozniak aptly pointed out, so that the city shares some of the burden. Secondhand smoke is more than a nuisance, of course, as a class A carcinogen, but an official designation of nuisance is an important way for the city to underscore to tenants, landlords, and perhaps someday even the rent board, that there is no safe dose of secondhand smoke. 

Only about 10% of Alameda County still smokes. And most of them live in smokefree housing voluntarily, electing to step outside for the obvious reasons: to avoid exposing their families and friends, to avoid having everything they own smell like an ashtray, and to help them smoke less. 

Those that still do smoke inside, whether it is marijuana or tobacco or both, have the option of walking outside to smoke, taking a lozenge, putting on a patch, chewing gum, and using edible products. They are not obligated by their addictions to foul the air, as the city council seems to think. Their neighbors have no choice but to breath whatever they introduce into the shared air of an apartment building, which circulates through walls, heating vents, common areas, and light fixtures. 

Call your council representative, if you want to help the poorest, lowest-income tenants, mostly people of color, finally rid their lives of involuntary exposure to disease-causing secondhand smoke. Remind them that every smokefree movie, every restaurant and supermarket in California is full of smokers – who simply step outside.