Strengthens Existing Smoking Ban; Shows Weak Support for Expanding
It to Residential Units
By Jorge Casuso
April 9 -- The City Council Tuesday took initial steps
to ban smoking in the common areas of multi-unit residential buildings,
but indicated it would likely not extend the ban inside the units
The hotly debated issue came as the council voted unanimously to strengthen
enforcement of its most recent smoking law by making business owners liable
who “knowingly or intentionally” allow patrons to smoke in outdoor
dining areas. The law will require businesses to prominently post no-smoking
signs in those areas.
The council also extended Santa Monica’s smoking ban to all public library
grounds and lowered the fines for first-time violations to $100 from $250, putting
it in line with other cities that have similar smoking bans.
But the council indicated it would likely do little to ban smoking inside apartment
units, despite testimony from dozens of tenants who said they were spending
thousands of dollars on air filters, leaving doors open and even being driven
from their homes by neighboring chain smokers.
“When we go into people’s private living quarters, where do we
stop?” said Mayor Herb Katz. “I think we’ve got to be careful
before we start to step on people’s private rights. I can’t support
going into someone’s house.”
Council members who belong to Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR)
worried that banning smoking inside residential units could give landlords ammunition
to evict long-time tenants, many of whom pay rents far below market rates.
“Smoking tenants could be at risk of losing their homes,” said
Council member Kevin McKeown. The City can’t “allow an unfair advantage
to a landlord trying to evict a tenant for financial reasons.”
“I’ve always been reluctant,” said Council member Ken Genser.
“There’s a lot of incentive on the part of landlords to evict people.”
After making a successful motion directing staff to come back with a smoking
ban for common areas, Mayor Pro Tem Richard Bloom said, “I think this
is a pretty big step, and there is some concern about how we move forward.”
Council member Bobby Shriver, who is not a member of the city’s powerful
tenants group, was the only one on the dais who expressed support for a possible
ban on smoking in apartment units, pointing to the often emotional testimony
of rent-control tenants.
“I feel these people have a fairly urgent problem because of the situations
they live in,” Shriver said.
Shriver said that tenants being forced to buy air filters and leave their doors
open “is nuts.”
“I just don’t get it,” he said. “I think we should
be tough on that.”
Although Genser expressed reservations about a ban on smoking inside units,
he said the testimony pointed to problems that “are sounding more significant
and more believable than stories heard at previous meetings.”
The discussion, however, only led to a vaguely worded motion to “explore
other options for housing and hold workshops.”
The council’s direction came after testimony from health experts, anti-smoking
activists and tenants who said their health is at risk from second-hand smoke.
Some said they have been forced to take extreme measures to escape the smoke
that seeps through cracks, travels through ducts and permeates their units.
One woman, who said she would get up at 2. a.m. choking from her neighbor’s
second-hand smoke, has been forced to sleep in the living room of her rent-controlled
Another, a resident of a Community Corporation affordable housing building,
said she has developed asthma and sinus problems from the smoke that comes through
a vent and has been forced to move in with a friend.
Regina Harcourt said she has developed asthma and spent thousands of dollars
on air filters to combat the second-hand smoke coming from a neighboring tenant
in her rent control building.
“I really believe I have a right to just breathe,” she said. “I
don’t see it as a rent control issue.”
James Lebesque, whose two teenage daughters live with him two weeks
out of the month, said he has had to keep the doors open after chain
smokers moved into the two units below his rent-control apartment.
“We sent letters to the property manager for two years,” he said.
“Now we must open and leave the front door open.”
“I don’t think it’s right that we should suffer in our home,”
one of his daughters said.
Lebesque used an industrial standard instrument to measure the
pollutants from the second-hand smoke entering his apartment between
midnight and 3 a.m. and found high levels of airborne particles.
Joan Waddell, of the local office of the National Council on Alcoholism and
Drug Dependence in the South Bay, said the experiment proves “that tobacco
smoke can move from one unit to another and can be at dangerous levels.”
Ester Schiller, director of Smoke-free Air For Everyone (SAFE), said her group
has been receiving calls for help from apartment and condo residents since 1995.
“We used to suggest to people that they move, but for people who live
in rent controlled apartments, that’s an impossible suggestion,”
“They don’t want to give up their reasonable rents, they don’t
want to breathe the smoke,” she said. “It’s impossible.”
SAFE lists vacancies in smoke free buildings in Santa Monica, but only six
of the of 325 apartment owners in the registry have smoke-free buildings, Schiller
Schiller suggested that Santa Monica follow the lead of Calabasas, which passed
an ordinance that requires 80 percent of residential buildings to be completely
smoke-free by 2012.
Those who represent property owners urged the council to move carefully on
any smoking ban in residential buildings.
Bill Dawson, a vice president at Sullivan-Dituri Realtors, one of the largest
property managers in the city, said such an ordinance could face “potential
“Who’s going to enforce this? Who’s going to litigate it?”
Dawson said. “I’m worried about the devil in the details.
“Work over the logistics,” Dawson said. “This is all really
new. The ordinances haven’t been around long enough to know the pitfalls.”
In addition to directing staff to explore an ordinance banning smoking in common
areas of multi-unit residential buildings, the council asked for an ordinance
that establishes a tobacco retailer-licensing law for Santa Monica to help assure
that minors are not sold cigarettes.
The final version of the ordinance approved Tuesday night making business owners
liable for smoking in their establishments is scheduled to go before the council
on April 22.
If approved, it would become effective 90 days later on July 21 to coincide
with the roll-out of the City’s upcoming public outreach and
education campaign. City staff will choose the marketing firm for
that job on April 15.