For residents of Santa Rosa’s tallest building, the 14-story Bethlehem Tower, there’s been nowhere to hide from secondhand smoke for years.
The 159 units of affordable housing for seniors are connected by enclosed hallways and a common ventilation system that means everyone is effectively breathing the same air.
“We smell everything coming from the apartments next door, right down to the laundry,” said Patricia Edwards as she puffed away on a Marlboro light outside the downtown apartment building last week.
A few months ago, following upgrades by a new investment group and a yearlong transition period, Edwards’ building went smoke-free, forcing her and other seniors to take their life long habits outside.
“Now we come out here in the rain, the wind and the cold,” said Edwards, who is 65 and says that since she began smoking at age 15 she has tried to quit unsuccessfully 12 times.
Thousands of other apartment, condominium and townhouse dwellers in Santa Rosa may soon find themselves similarly put out by sweeping and controversial new anti-smoking regulations that will make it against the law to smoke tobacco, marijuana or e-cigarettes inside attached housing units.
After extensive study and public input, the issue returns to the City Council on Tuesday for a likely decision.
Health advocates have long sought to expand the no-smoking boundaries beyond bars, restaurants and work spaces to include attached housing units as well. They argue that it is impossible to prevent secondhand smoke from migrating between connected units, creating a nuisance at best and deadly health hazard at worst, especially residents with allergies and asthma.
In recent years, Sonoma County, Petaluma and Sebastopol have all, in varying forms, extended their anti-smoking laws to include attached dwellings.
But the expansion of such laws in Santa Rosa, which has more multifamily housing units than those three jurisdictions combined, is noteworthy because it will affect far more people.
As such, it is receiving strong support from groups like the American Lung Association, as well as significant pushback from residents, privacy advocates and other interest groups, including e-cigarette sellers.
The city currently defines smoking as “inhaling, exhaling, burning or carrying any lighted pipe, cigar or cigarette of any kind, or any other combustible substance.” The new definition adds “hookah” and “electronic smoking device” to the list and “any other combustible substance including marijuana.”
Advocates of e-cigarettes, which allow users to simulate smoking by inhaling vaporized liquid nicotine, argue strenuously that including such devices in a smoking ordinance is inane because no combustion occurs, just the vaporization of liquid with a heating element. They also say the products are a healthier alternative to cigarette smoke that helps people quit smoking.
Critics paint the devices, most of which are manufactured in China, as far from harmless. The then-head of California’s Public Health Department, Dr. Ron Chapman, in January warned they emit “a concoction of chemicals toxic to human cells,” including heavy metals and fine particles that penetrate deep into lung tissue. They also say claims the devices help people quit smoking tobacco are unproven.
The inclusion of marijuana in the smoking definition is something Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom has questioned. She said the city needs to acknowledge that using medical marijuana is legal and the city needs to be “careful about infringing on that right.”