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."