Plan to ban smoking in apartments still up in the air

Palo Alto committee not ready to expand city's restrictions but agrees to add e-cigarettes to existing bans

Smokers in Palo Alto's apartment complexes need not snuff out their cigarette butts just yet.

Having already prohibited smoking at local parks, outdoor dining areas, downtown arteries and open space preserves, city officials on Tuesday considered expanding the ban to multi-family homes. But with too many details still up in the air, a City Council committee balked at adding the new restriction at this time.

Members of the Policy and Services Committee were less reluctant, however, to add e-cigarettes to the city's existing smoking restrictions. Despite some questions about the harmful effects of vaping, the committee agreed that the rising number of youth using e-cigarettes is a good reason to add them to the existing bans. The committee also asked staff to put together a licensing program for local establishments that sell cigarettes.

The committee's Tuesday discussion took several hours and ended on an inconclusive note, with a motion to continue. The three members who participated in the discussion – Chair Pat Burt and Councilmen Tom DuBois and Cory Wolbach – requested that staff return with information about filtration and ventilation systems for smoke; about a potential conflict between the proposed restriction and the potential future legalization of marijuana; and about the feasibility of completely cleansing apartments used by smokers to convert them into non-smoker units.

The fourth committee member, Marc Berman, recused himself from the discussion of apartment complexes because he lives in a multi-family complex. Berman joined the rest of his colleagues, however, in supporting an ordinance change regarding e-cigarettes. The committee was swayed by a letter from Santa Clara County's Public Health Department about the spreading use of e-cigarettes by youths, which noted, "Children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to the renormalization of smoking through the use of e-cigarettes.

"Youth are now witnessing smoking behaviors in public spaces that have been smoke-free for most, if not all, of their lives," the letter states. "Youth are also being exposed to e-cigarette advertising on television, something that has been prohibited for decades for traditional tobacco products."

The result, the county found, is that "youth are rapidly taking up e-cigarettes." One study from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) showed the percentage of high school students who had tried e-cigarettes rising from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012.

Both DuBois and Berman found this statistic striking.

"The likely harm to youth outweighs for me the potential benefit (e-cigarettes) might provide to others," Berman said, explaining his support of the ban.

Committee member had plenty of concerns, however, about banning smoking at multi-family complexes. DuBois said that while he generally supports the idea of restricting smoking, he is uncomfortable with telling people that they can't smoke in their own homes. One idea the committee favored was banning smoking at apartment complexes but allowing building owners to set up places away from common areas in which smoking would be allowed.

Burt also had some reservations. While he supported creating laws that prevent second-hand smoke, he said he was concerned about the idea of "trying to regulate private conduct" on this issue.

Residents in local apartment complexes, meanwhile, seem to be in support of the idea of banning smoking by a significant margin. A survey administered by the city showed 82 percent saying they were bothered by smoke in the complex grounds and 80 percent saying they feel bothered by smoke inside their units.

Overall, 90 percent of the more than 500 respondents were in favor of smoking restrictions in multi-family housing, with most of them supporting banning smoking "in all units and all common areas."

"I cannot even open my sliding door because my next door neighbor smokes and the smoke comes up into my room and bothers me," one respondent wrote.

Another observed that smokers "seem to think that smoking outside is not a problem, but the smell permeates my residence. When it occurs, I consider it a major nuisance."

One respondent said Palo Alto should "continue to demonstrate its leadership on public-safety issues by implementing the strictest possible anti-smoking ordinances in multi-family buildings."

Another respondent offered a blunt and brutal assessment of smokers: "Smokers are selfish and inconsiderate. They smoke in common areas and expose other people to dangerous second-hand smoke."

But not everyone agreed with the smoking ban. Resident Michael Moore attended the meeting to voice his opposition to the ban. He asked the committee how this ban would be enforced.

"Are people going to be cited because someone else said they're smoking, or will (people) take pictures of neighbors?" Moore asked. "Is the police department or whoever enforces this going to have to witness someone smoking?"

Proponents will have to hold their collective breaths for a few months longer. While the other two proposals, to include e-cigarettes in the ban and to require licensing for stores selling tobacco products, will now go to the full City Council for approval, the ban on multi-family housing is set to return to the committee for more discussion.

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8 people like this
Posted by Randy Willis
a resident of another community
on May 13, 2015 at 4:45 am

While all venders for electronic cigarette and vaping products wholly support bans on sales to minors, the arguments used in the above article are straw men at best.

It is true that e-cigarette usage among teenagers has seen a dramatic rise in the most recent CDC survey. However, what is not noted in this article is that same survey also found that use of combustible cigarettes by teens has fallen to all-time lows. Further, uptake of ecigs by never-smoked teens remains low, and no evidence supports that teens are moving from e-cigarettes to traditional smoking. In fact, all evidence to this point shows otherwise, thus thoroughly discounting the failing theory of smoking renormalization.

In an ideal world, teens would not do things that risk harm to themselves. However, never has society achieved that level of perfection, nor will it. Teens drink alcohol, try illegal drugs, practice unsafe driving habits, etc. Eradicating all illicit behavior from the young is a Utopian ideal that will never succeed. To that end, it is an absolute shame that public health agencies are demonizing the use of e-cigarettes by teens, when instead they should be grateful that the devices appear to be furthering their cause of having a smoke-free generation. Though e-cigs are not 100% harmless or risk-free, no product available is, whether it be cars, alcohol, medications, or even cosmetics.

The fact are simple though. E-cigarettes have proven to be safer than combustible tobacco by orders of magnitude. Furthermore, peer-reviewed research has shown that the addictive power of nicotine is significantly weaker with e-cigarettes than traditional. One such study has gone so far as to state e-cigarettes are less addictive than nicotine gum which is not considered very addictive at all.

In this context, making the conclusion that teens moving from the well-known, and well-documented disease vectors of combustible cigarettes to a significantly safer product is a net win for public health. While certainly all would prefer no risky behaviors among teens, without keeping them shrouded in solitary confinement throughout their formative years, the best strategy is one of mitigation.

12 people like this
Posted by However
a resident of Community Center
on May 13, 2015 at 11:17 am

@Randy - e cigs still produce second hand toxins so they need to be banned from all the same places as tobacco cigarettes. Just because they "might" ("might" being the operative word since we don't have the benefit of long term studies on e-cigs so we don't yet know the long term effects of inhaling VOCs) be less harmful than cigarettes doesn't mean they're harmless and we wouldn't want to move backwards on allowing the use of e-cigs in public places after making such great strides in banning cigarettes.

14 people like this
Posted by However
a resident of Community Center
on May 13, 2015 at 11:20 am

Hopefully this generation will grow up accepting the fact that they can't smoke anything in public places or places where their second hand toxins effect other people.

9 people like this
Posted by Save us from ourselves
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 13, 2015 at 11:41 am

We should ban everything, everywhere, even in our own homes. It might be dangerous. Save us from ourselves.

12 people like this
Posted by PA mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 13, 2015 at 12:40 pm

PA mom is a registered user.

I worked at Stanford Coffee House in 1980 when smoking was allowed in restaurants. One day I was cleaning a window, and my boss explained that the dark dinge I was scrubbing off was from cigarette smokeā€”the same stuff that secondhand cigarette smoke coats onto the inside of other people's lungs. That's the stinky stuff that seeps in through vents, walls and under doors into apartments of non-smokers and coats their lungs too. I think that the smell should be tell tail evidence enough.

5 people like this
Posted by Sylvia
a resident of Midtown
on May 13, 2015 at 12:48 pm

I am an ex-smoker. I quit in the 70's and, hopefully, my lungs have fully recovered. But I do think that banning smoking for apartment dwellers is a step too far. While it would be best if everyone quit, a person's home is still their castle. It just doesn't seem right to forbid this private behavior.

14 people like this
Posted by No castles
a resident of Barron Park
on May 13, 2015 at 1:08 pm

@ Sylvia- The reason that smoking needs to be banned in apartment (and condo) buildings is that the smoke enters the other units in the building. I've been in units with smokers in adjacent units and the smell can be awful. So a person's behavior within their "castle" still impinges on others rights to breathe clean air.

25 people like this
Posted by Pearl
a resident of another community
on May 13, 2015 at 1:33 pm

Pearl is a registered user.

This is a no-duh, folks. Smoking (anything) should be banned in apartment buildings, EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY.

Until smoking in the apartment building where I live was banned, I suffered the effects of second-hand smoke for 10 years from the cigarette smoker who lived in the apartment below me. My curtains, and the clothes in my closet smelled of cigarette smoke, the smoke constantly made me cough, and I had to keep my balcony sliding glass door shut because she often went outside on her balcony to smoke, which smoke traveled up into my apartment.

Get a clue, people...smoking is bad...smoking kills...second-hand smoke kills!!!

Shame on the Palo Alto City Council committee for their hesitation, and lack of courage in banning smoking in apartment buildings, EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY!!! : (

13 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 13, 2015 at 1:50 pm

Everything kills. Eventually.

Please ban all the backed up cars, motorcycles, buses, vans, trucks etc. that are spewing exhaust for about 12 hours a day in front of MY house. I'm tired of cleaning their filth off my windowsills and outdoor furniture.

Please ban all perfume and cologne sales. It's offensive to my sensitive nose. And incense sales and sales of scented soaps, detergents, deodorants, shampoos, etc. etc.

Please stop all construction immediately. The noise and the filth and port-a-potties are just annoying.

Ban all peanut sales immediately. Someone might be allergic to them.

Please ban all shrieking children from all public areas. Their noise pollution is just intolerable.

Please ban all bicyclists and skateboarders who ignore cars in the road and people walking on the sidewalks. They sneak up on the unsuspecting and it's dangerous. People will get killed.

I could go on and on but you get the point.

Seriously, enough with the nanny state.

9 people like this
Posted by @Online Name
a resident of Mountain View
on May 13, 2015 at 1:56 pm

So all of those annoyances you list cause cancer -- right?

Uh, no. But secondhand cigarette smoke does.

Get a clue. And remember: Libertarianism only makes sense if you're 14.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of College Terrace
on May 13, 2015 at 4:06 pm

How about prohibiting cigarettes sales? There seems to be proliferation of smoke shops. What the point of banning something that you are allowing to sell? Strange logic.

4 people like this
Posted by skycat
a resident of another community
on May 13, 2015 at 7:35 pm

skycat is a registered user.

@ However - If you are so concerned about things that are not proven safe, do you stay out of the sun (carcinogenic UV rays, and sunscreens are not 100% effective), and fear the VOCs formed when meat is grilled over charcoal? Don't forget the radon gas which is in every secondhand-smoke-free breath you take. It can trigger lung cancer.

11 people like this
Posted by However
a resident of Community Center
on May 14, 2015 at 6:39 pm

@skycat - I don't really want to find out in 10 years that the VOCs from other people's e-cigs that I've been breathing in for all that time are carcinogenic.

Smokers, when allowed in public places, were everywhere. You couldn't breathe in public places for it. If we allow e-cigs in public places there will be e-cig smokers constantly surrounding us and we will be breathing in VOCs constantly. That's why we should ban it. They need to first be proven safe, then allowed in public places.

And actually yes, I do avoid charcoal grilled meat because of the toxins produced. And if we're breathing radon gas in every breath we take we certainly wouldn't want to be adding VOCs to that would we?

8 people like this
Posted by Sueanne
a resident of Downtown North
on May 15, 2015 at 8:50 am

It baffles me that the City Council has to ponder and further research such a serious health threat for those who live in Multi-Unit Dwellings and share the same air through a shared ventilation system.

They say you can't smoke downtown University Ave. where the smoke floats into the air rapidly, it's an open environment, and you can walk away from the person who is smoking to get some cleaner air, but the council is having a hard time passing a smoking ban for residents who live in Mulit-Unit Dwellings and are sharing the same air through shared ventilation, in small enclosed areas, and can't get away from the smoke. I'm in bed at night sleeping and the smoke from the person's unit below me comes through my vent into my bedroom. It's cold outside so I can't open the windows.

The city council often talks about healthful living and then has a hard time making a health decision like this? Ludicrous!

San Mateo County has a ban

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