Palo Alto seeks tougher tobacco laws

City considers requiring licenses for tobacco retailers, adding restrictions on where people can smoke

Smoking is hardly a burning issue in Palo Alto, but those who make it their vice of choice could soon encounter new pressures and obstacles.

City officials are considering further restricting where people can smoke, introducing new anti-smoking educational programs and requiring all businesses that sell cigarettes to acquire licenses. The initiatives would be funded largely through a $51,724 grant from Santa Clara County, which had recently updated its own smoking ordinance.

The City Council's Policy and Services Committee on Tuesday night agreed that the time is ripe for Palo Alto to update its smoking laws, which are now more lenient than those of many neighboring jurisdictions. The county's "Tobacco Report Card," which issues grades based on factors like compliance with tobacco-advertising, restriction of sales to minors, and level of enforcement, awarded the city a B in June 2010. In 2009, the city received an F.

"It is sort of stunning that a community like Palo Alto that prides itself on being a healthy community and forward thinking, that we'd be in this situation," Committee Chair Gail Price said. "With this report card, we'd never get through the Palo Alto Unified School District."

Still, the committee agreed that the grades should be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps more telling than the city's mediocre grades is the fact that an observer can spend all day and all night in downtown Palo Alto and never encounter a smoker.

"There's a very good reason why we haven't done very much for the past 20 years," Councilman Larry Klein said. "Smoking is a problem that virtually disappeared in Palo Alto."

Klein, who works downtown and lives near Jordan Middle School, said he doesn't see anyone smoking in either downtown or near the school ("unlike middle-schoolers in a different era"). If the county considered how many people actually smoke in Palo Alto, the city could have come away with an A or an A+, he said.

Palo Alto became an anti-smoking leader in the 1970s and early 1980s when it adopted laws banning smoking in (in chronological order) theaters, portions of restaurants and workplaces. The city later outlawed smoking at all restaurants completely in public spaces and within 20 feet of entrances to public spaces.

In recent years, however, the city's municipal code remained static while those of neighboring communities expanded. San Jose, which received an F grade on the county's report card, this year instituted a new licensing program for tobacco establishments with $500, $750 and $1,000 fines for first, second and third offenses, respectively. Santa Clara also adopted a new Tobacco Retailer Permit Ordinance last November. The ordinance requires all retailers to get licenses and calls for the county to conduct at least two inspections per year at each licensed retailer to ensure they're not selling to minors.

Sales to minors appears to be Palo Alto's most glaring weakness when it comes to cigarettes. Police Captain Mark Venable noted in his report that the department conducted a sting operation in spring 2010 and found almost 50 percent of the retailers approached selling tobacco to underage youth.

The council committee directed staff on Tuesday to explore setting up a new licensing program for tobacco businesses in Palo Alto and to apply for the county grant. The licensing fees would be used to beef up the city's inspection program.

The city is also considering revising its ordinance to prohibit smoking in all public areas, including sidewalks, within both private and public outdoor recreational areas and within a "20-plus foot buffer around all areas where smoking is prohibited." In the coming months, staff plans to host public hearings and reach out to businesses and neighborhood groups to solicit feedback on the ordinance revision. City officials also plan to further analyze the impacts of a tobacco-licensing program and potential cost-recovery opportunities.

Councilman Pat Burt said he wasn't convinced by the county's scoring system but agreed that given the severe health effects of smoking and the fact that some high school students still do it, it's time to strengthen the city's tobacco laws.

"I think we should elevate our programs," Burt said. "I'm disappointed we've fallen behind on this."

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Like this comment
Posted by Koa
a resident of Mountain View
on Jun 8, 2011 at 9:19 am

Prioritize time and money for issues by their importance. If smoking is a problem that "virtually disappeared" from Palo Alto, then virtually zero tax dollars and public employee time should be spent trying to solve it. We should focus our attention on more urgent matters.

Like this comment
Posted by annoyed
a resident of another community
on Jun 8, 2011 at 9:30 am

And who would enforce this? Certainly not the Police Department who you want to cut.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2011 at 10:21 am

The laws are fine. Smoking is not a problem in Palo Alto. Smoking laws should be a county matter at this stage.

We don't have the time or money to waste on something that isn't a problem. Let's solve real problems instead.

Like this comment
Posted by Anne
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 8, 2011 at 11:16 am

Smoking IS an issue in Downtown Palo Alto. Walk down University any evening and people are smoking, forcing those around then to do so as well, then tossing the butts on the sidewalk. Second-hand smoke is a real issue. In largely residential areas it may not be a problem, but in public areas it still is. Any time you take your child out and someone is smoking nearby, you and your child are smoking, too. And the smoker is making the choice for ALL of us, not just themselves.

Like this comment
Posted by Mary
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 8, 2011 at 11:23 am

Don't waste money trying to keep up for appearances sake. We have more important issues.

Like this comment
Posted by SuperD
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 8, 2011 at 11:45 am

So, Klein acknowledges that smoking isn't a really major problem in Palo Alto; yet our council will explore setting up a new licensing program for tobacco businesses. Of course we will need to hire someone to deal with licenses and enforcement, and the proceeds from the county grant and licensing fees will likely not be sufficient to cover the overhead associated with the new administrative position. Last time I checked Palo Alto had budget/financial problems. Gotta agree with Mary on this one - we have more important issues to address first.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 8, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Let's get this one done so we can move on to other highly important efforts to restrict harmful things in Palo alto.

We need to crack down on steaks, little cupcakes with sugar icing, ice cream and all its evil clones, gyms with the availability of workouts that cause members to increase their heart rates,...and potholes that may cause teeth to be chipped

Like this comment
Posted by YellowTeethGrossness
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 8, 2011 at 1:10 pm

The movers hanging out behind the Main Library taking a smoking break... like about 4 of them....Stinch in the air...Gross. It DOES happen here.

Like this comment
Posted by stretch
a resident of another community
on Jun 8, 2011 at 2:19 pm

To yellowteeth: STINCH in the air? Oh, no - not the dreaded stinch! Get real. How many of you sit in outdoor restaurants breathing in car exhaust? What a joke. Get to work on real problems.

Like this comment
Posted by Too Much Traffic
a resident of another community
on Jun 8, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Just as long as the new licensing program doesn't result in additional employees and new net Palo Alto car trips. That's the standard that should be set in all cases, in order to be consistent. After all, if you're going to make these demands of Stanford, they should be made of everyone and everything. If the development at Stanford is to be considered like having "to swallow a bowling ball" (as has been said), then this would surely be like swallowing a marble or a gum drop.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 8, 2011 at 8:54 pm

I would like to see the benches downtown off limits to smokers. It's one of the few places where people sit and smoke. It's also a favorite place for non-smokers who often get up and leave.

Like this comment
Posted by Benjamin Sergeant
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jun 8, 2011 at 9:26 pm

If you can't smoke on a sidewalk do you have to go on the road ?
I find it really extreme. If the smoker goes to an open space, and make
sure he's not gonna smoke directly on someone it's fine. If you're walking the
street and passing by, talking of second-hand smoking is really extreme and I
it probably really doesn't hold from a scientific standpoint.

Seriously, breathing car exhaust is probably a much bigger problem, if you
count the number of cancer case that are related to air pollution, and that air was
not polluted by cigarette smoke.

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 8, 2011 at 10:17 pm

In the ten years since 9/11 smoking has caused 4.5 million premature and very painful deaths in America.

The harm reduction solution is for smokers to use SNUS--used in Sweden for over 100 years.

Sweden has the lowest lung cancer rate of any EU state--because people use snus as their nicotine delivery system

Snus is legal in the US and widely available.

Research shows that snus has minimal--if any-- health consequences

Nicotine is not the problem--protects from Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and apparently depression, schizophrenia and ADD

The problem is smoking--pot has the same cancer and cardio vascular effects.

Like this comment
Posted by Tom_D
a resident of Professorville
on Jun 8, 2011 at 10:18 pm

Before tightening up on an issue which is, by Larry Klein's own admission, not a real issue any more, let's see 100% compliance with existing laws - let's see 100% guaranteed enforcement and absolute elimination of speeding (especially along residential University Ave., Embarcadero, Alma - including use of speed cameras if necessary), bicyclists ignoring traffic laws, pedestrians jaywalking and crossing against red or yellow lights, continued illegal use of cell phones while driving, etc. I can't tolerate the idea of having to obey a more oppressive and fascist smoking ordinance while reckless and wilful lawbreaking are constantly going on around me. Get your own act together, Palo Alto residents, before telling me more about how to behave.

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 8, 2011 at 10:44 pm

From a rational public health point of view HIV/ AIDS, and related TB and other linked behavioral vectored infections are a serious health risk and huge cost for PA residents and tax payers.

Are we going to police them also?

Like this comment
Posted by Outside Observer
a resident of another community
on Jun 8, 2011 at 11:49 pm


Fully agree, but lets also enforce immigration law. Deport illegals, and jail their employers.

Like this comment
Posted by Marianne
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 9, 2011 at 1:01 am

Second hand smoking is a big problem in downtown Palo Alto. All the cafes have smokers outside, and the police does little to nothing to stop this problem. As a business owner I've called the police numerous times to enforce the law, only to be confronted with "we'll send someone over" (and not following up) or "we have bigger things to deal with" attitude. Second hand smoking victims have not rights in downtown Palo Alto when the police fail to even show up to a complaint.

Like this comment
Posted by Get off your drugs...
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 9, 2011 at 4:57 am

Please stop wasting time on this issue. There REALLY are better and pressing issues to deal with.

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2011 at 8:13 am

"[T]here’s a giant exception to the rule that the longer life tends to be a healthier one:

Obese people are living longer, thanks to factors such as cholesterol-cutting medicines (as is the entire population), but much of their extra time is spent in ill health,

and as a result, their annual medical bills are some 42 percent higher than those of normal-weight people.

In fact, the obesity epidemic has greatly increased the prevalence of chronic diseases such as diabetes, but contrary to much of the media coverage on the epidemic, it has had little effect on mortality rates.

As the title of one study put it, “Smoking kills, obesity disables.”

As one researcher noted, when it comes to chronic health problems, being obese is roughly equivalent to being aged by 20 years."

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2011 at 9:46 am

@ Resident:

"The laws are fine. Smoking is not a problem in Palo Alto."

It is a problem for our family. We have a couple of neighbors who walk through our apartment complex smoking day and night. With our windows open, we can't breathe from that cancerous pollution streaming into our home.

But, if we close the door, it can get extremely hot (we don't have air conditioning). It has literally gotten to the point where we hurry up and close the windows when we hear these two neighbors walking by. Most of the time, we end up turning on a fan and facing it OUTSIDE.

The property manager has asked these individuals to refrain from smoking when walking next to our open windows, but it continues unabated.

I would love for laws to exist that would prevent people from smoking within so many feet of someone else's home.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 9, 2011 at 10:30 am


I sympathise entirely, I hate smoke and grew up in a house with a habitual smoker and spent many work years in very smoky offices.

The trouble as I see it is policing these laws. Just because there is a law, will it make a difference? Are you going to call the cops every time your neighbor walks by? And will you be victimized by your neighbor for calling the cops?

At present, we have many laws which are not being policed. From offleash dogs, late night noisy neighbors to smoking outside where it is not allowed, there are laws which don't stop people breaking them.

Restaurants, office buildings, etc. manage to cope with their smoking customers/workers meaning that if someone infringes on the rules they are told straight away. It is probably the case that rental property owners/managers should be the ones to make sure the rules stick. Smokers should have their rent increased and property owners should ensure that the present rules are obeyed.

On top of that, smoking rules should be county rules. It is ridiculous to think that we have different rules just because we cross a city border. Keeping abreast of these laws for someone who lives, works and socializes in different cities will only lead to confused smokers.

I strongly suggest that you get in touch with your property owners and not just the managers to enforce the rules, put up no smoking signs and warn the miscreants.

Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2011 at 11:27 am

Hi Resident,

You make some good points. But, no, I wouldn't call the police every time a smoker walked by. However, a law would cause property managers and landlords to inject this within lease agreements. If such a provision is perpetually violated, it would be a violation of the lease contract.

Individuals would be very careful to NOT violate such a rule if it could result in eviction.

Moreover, cities that enact smoking prohibitions in restaurants saw an IMMEDIATE change in smoking habits.

Now, I don't care if someone smokes in the privacy of their own home (although forcing children to inhale secondhand smoke is an entirely different issue that I won't even pretend to have a suggestion or solution for). But this isn't done in "privacy." This is PUBLIC smoking that affect ME and MY FAMILY in the privacy of OUR home.

Sadly, I have spoken with the property managers about this. The manager told me that they are more or less powerless to stop it. They did say that you can't smoke ten feet from someone's windows or doors in the latest lease agreement. One older gentleman has kindly acquiesced. However, there are those other two who just don't seem to care.

Smoking affects our family in particular because my husband is allergic to cigarette smoke. He gets a terrible sinus headache almost immediately from some of the chemicals and irritants burning in most cigarettes. His eyes burn, water and itch too. Since our apartment does not have an air conditioner, we rely on open windows for fresh, cooler air.

Remember: Cigarette smoke is a toxic pollutant. It truly is more dangerous than standing in one of those places that are required by state law to post warnings about risks of cancer and birth defects.

Now, I couldn't care less about individuals who smoke in the privacy of their own homes. I couldn't care less about people who smoke in non-confined places either. If I were at the beach and someone was smoking, I can move. If someone is smoking in a park, I can walk away and play Frisbee somewhere else. However, I can't move from my apartment (without breaking my lease). Does that make more sense?

We have public intoxication laws only because it affects those around publicly intoxicated individuals. Such laws typically aren't enforced UNLESS there is the risk of affecting others. People are free to get private residents, clubs...etc... Heck, I don't have a problem with bars and clubs that are designated as smoking areas. However, smoking next to my windows and door affects our home.

In fact, we used to have a heavy smoker living in the adjacent connected apartment. Cigarette smoke would constantly funnel through the kitchen wall into our kitchen. Since we have no way to close off the kitchen and we have no hood ventilation over our stove, we were powerless to stop it. Thankfully, the man (who was staying with his girlfriend) was eventually arrested for some other crime and was supposedly deported. It took a while to get the smell of smoke out of our kitchen. Needless to say, it left an ugly "taste" in our mouth.

So, I would like to see some law that would protect nonsmokers and their families/homes from the direct pollutants from smokers.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 9, 2011 at 12:17 pm


Don't get me wrong. I don't disagree with you that there should be laws for all the reasons you mention, I'm just not sure that they should be done at the City level. Even at the County level there would be anomalies. I think that, as you say, if there were laws then leases would have to have these written in them and there would be more chance of the laws being obeyed. Agreed.

We pay our taxes to the County and for the life of me, I don't see that apart from some of our roads, we get anything for the money the county accrues from our property tax. Of course they have health offices (the number of times I get told by the school that there is lice or chicken pox in my child's class) which comes from the county health office, but that information is really of little value in most cases.

No, I want Palo Alto to leave the smoking laws alone and/or the County to do its part. Let the City of Palo Alto deal with more important issues like serious crime and traffic, and not find ways to spend money that the City doesn't have at its disposal.

Like this comment
Posted by Diana
a resident of Juana Briones School
on Jun 9, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Wondering: has anybody noticed the Palo Alto Whole Food employees that smoke in the alley adjacent to the store? Or they sit in doorways and smoke.
I think it is very funny that they work in an upscale, "HEALTH FOOD"
store....yet so many of them are smokers.

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Based on the evidence

Obese and overweight people are a greater threat to our economy

Their annual medical bills are some 42 percent higher than those of normal-weight people.

when it comes to chronic health problems, being obese is roughly equivalent to being aged by 20 years.

“Smoking kills, obesity disables.”

@ Stanford only around 2% smoke but the obesity levels are around 30%

maybe we need a law

Like this comment
Posted by Phillip morris
a resident of another community
on Jun 9, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Maybe you should start chain smoking, Sharon.

Like this comment
Posted by Koa
a resident of Mountain View
on Jun 9, 2011 at 9:21 pm

Car exhaust is many times more dangerous than cigarette smoke. If you don't believe me, ask yourself this question: would you rather be a closed garage with a running car or someone smoking? One of the two will kill you within an hour, while the other would take at least 10 years to register any health effects. A little perspective for people who think getting a whiff of smoke while you are walking outside downtown will send you to the ER.

Keep that in mind the next time you force us all to inhale your SUV exhaust when we are trying to enjoy a nice walk down the street with our dogs.

Like this comment
Posted by psshew
a resident of another community
on Jun 10, 2011 at 8:38 am

I run into cigarette smoke on University Ave. ALL THE TIME. It's one of the things I hate the most up here. And due to the BMR program, I have a next door neighbor who smokes; the fumes blow all over my yard and through my open windows on a regular basis. LOVE IT!

Like this comment
Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 11, 2011 at 11:15 am

What up with you Democrat types always finding a new way to ban something or take more personal freedoms away? What next the abolishing of the bill of rights? This is why long ago I stopped voting Democrat.

Like this comment
Posted by DemVsGop
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 11, 2011 at 5:10 pm

I'd say put more laws and send the police department to enforce them since they are corrupt and don't do their job right. go see how they investigated a murder crime, took the wrong guy and left a murderer in Palo Alto smoking your streets.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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