Berkeley moves forward with ordinance to ban smoking in multiunit housing

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As soon as next May, smokers living in the city of Berkeley may have one fewer place to light up their cigarettes.

On Tuesday, Berkeley City Council unanimously approved the first of two readings of an ordinance that would ban cigarette smoking in all multiunit housing in Berkeley. This includes apartments, condominiums and group housing such as fraternities, as well as the areas connected with these buildings such as patios, balconies and common areas.

The ban would not restrict people from smoking e-cigarettes, marijuana or any other nontobacco products.

“I’m so thrilled that finally it’s come to fruition,” said Berkeley resident Carol Denney, a cancer patient who has been working with the city on this issue for about six years. “I live next to chain-smokers, but I can’t afford to move. A lot of people … are in similar circumstances.”

Most public areas in Berkeley, such as commercial sidewalks, parks and restaurants, are already designated as smoke-free zones. People would still be able to smoke in certain areas, such as residential sidewalks and single-family homes, if the second reading of the ordinance is passed at the City Council’s next meeting Dec. 17.

While regulation of the ordinance would begin in May, landlords would be required to notify their tenants in writing about the ban by March. Furthermore, all leases signed after May would have to include a nonsmoking clause, and landlords would be required to give all current tenants the opportunity to add nonsmoking clauses to their leases.

“The goal is twofold for this ordinance,” said Councilmember Jesse Arreguin. “(We want) people who are inadvertently exposed to secondhand smoke to not be exposed … and we also want to consider the health of the (smokers), for them to stop smoking because it creates serious health effects.”

Residents in multiunit housing who continue to smoke after May would be given administrative citations and, in more severe cases, infractions, with regulation depending on complaints from the smokers’ neighbors.

The fines for smoking in multiunit residences would be up to $100 for the first violation, up to $200 for the second and $500 for subsequent violations within the same year. Complainants would also be given the private right to sue their neighbors.

For longtime smokers living in commercial areas, complying with the ban may prove difficult, said Brendan Darrow, a staff attorney and clinical supervisor at the East Bay Community Law Center who has represented both smokers and those affected by secondhand smoke.

“If you live in Downtown Berkeley, you are not allowed to smoke on the street,” Darrow said. “(Smokers) who go have to go out late at night to have a cigarette are at risk of being victims of crime.”

Darrow also believes that applying this ordinance to multiunit housing and exempting single-family homes is “problematic.”

“It sets the stage for unequal enforcement of the laws,” said Darrow, who highlighted that those living in multiunit housing tend to have lower incomes than those living in single-family homes. This law could lead to low-income residents being singled out, he said.

There are 32 other counties and cities in California that have adopted either partial or complete ordinances banning smoking in multiunit housing, according to Liz Williams, project manager for Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, a national lobbying organization housed in Berkeley.

“A smoke-free ordinance isn’t just about telling people what they can and cannot do,” said Valerie Yerger, an associate professor in health policy at UC San Francisco. “It’s about protecting people, especially vulnerable children and families. Even when the smoke clears, there’s still toxic tobacco residue.”

Alison Fu covers city news. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @alisonfu_.