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.