By Carolyn Jones
BERKELEY — Berkeley, where residents take pride in exercising their personal freedoms and resisting government intrusion, is the site these days of a very different kind of movement — one to ban cigarette smoking from single-family homes.
A City Council member says a proposal to ban cigarette smoking in apartments and condos, where smoke can waft through ventilation systems, is not tough enough or fair. Councilman Jesse Arreguin says his fellow council members should consider expanding the proposed ban to include single-family homes where children, seniors or lodgers are present.
Cigarette smoking is already prohibited in Berkeley’s commercial districts, parks, bus stops and within 25 feet of any building open to the public, and the council plans to extend the ban to all apartments, condominiums and other multi-unit buildings where secondhand smoke can spread.
But if Berkeley is really serious about protecting nonsmokers, it should ban smoking in single-family homes as well, Arreguin argues in a proposal to toughen the proposed law.
Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, who supports the planned ban on smoking on multi-unit dwellings, said prohibiting smoking in single-family homes might be going too far.
”Our enforcement division is so overwhelmed right now. I think it would be very difficult to add more to their list,” she said, adding that she has empathy for the plight of smokers. “I smoked for 10 years. It’s not easy to quit. I feel for these smokers.”
Belmont, Richmond and Walnut Creek already ban smoking in multi-unit buildings, but there doesn’t appear to be an ordinance on the books anywhere that prohibits cigarette smoking in single-family homes, according to the American Lung Association.
While Berkeley’s proposal is among the toughest in the nation, it’s lenient in at least one regard: It does not include marijuana or e-cigarettes. Those would be permitted anywhere.
”There’s no doubt that smoking and secondhand smoke cause significant health problems,” Arreguin said. “I don’t see why Berkeley shouldn’t adopt some of the strictest smoking laws in the state. That’s my goal.”
Currently, the proposed ordinance, which does not include single-family homes, would rely on landlords or neighbors in multi-unit dwellings to complain to the city about smokers, and city staff in turn would issue warnings, invitations to quit-smoking classes and citations that could ultimately lead to evictions.
Arreguin is concerned that landlords will use the ordinance as an excuse to evict smokers who live in rent-controlled units, and that lower-income smokers would be disproportionately affected.
To be fair, he said, the ordinance should primarily be enforced by city code officers appointed to look for smokers who violate the ban. The city manager estimated that the cost for the extra staff time would be about $12o,000 a year, which Arreguin suggested be offset by a citywide $5-per-rental-unit annual fee.
In general, smoking bans in multi-unit dwellings have been very effective in prompting some smokers to quit, as well as protecting nonsmokers from the dangers of secondhand smoke, said Cynthia Hallett, executive director of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, a Berkeley nonprofit.
”Laws like these help change the social norm,” she said. “Really, we shouldn’t be smoking indoors at all.”
The University of California is also cracking down on smoking. Beginning in January, smoking will be prohibited on all UC property, which in Berkeley includes campus, dorms, stadiums and People’s Park.
So, if the city passes its smoking laws, where in Berkeley can one smoke?
”That’s a good question,” Arreguin said. “Outdoors in some parts of residential areas would be all that’s left.”
Smokers — or the few who admit to it, anyway — were unhappy about the potential ban on smoking at home.
Sharon Miller, 63, a retired secretary and lifelong Berkeley resident, said home is the one place she feels comfortable smoking.
”If I smoke outside, people come up to you all the time and say, ‘You shouldn’t smoke.’ ” she said. “So I smoke at home. I think in your own home, you should be allowed to do what you want. People should be able to choose what they put into their bodies. I don’t smoke a lot, but I enjoy it.”