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Heated debate over proposed Santa Rosa smoking rules

KEVIN MCCALLUM , THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Santa Rosa’s plan to expand its anti-smoking laws to cover private dwellings sparked a lively debate Thursday between smokers who view the move as government run amok and others who feel they have a right not to breathe their neighbors’ secondhand smoke.

The first of two public forums on the proposed changes drew fewer than 20 people but stirred passions on both sides of the issue.

“This city is run by evil monkeys!” said 68-year-old Seraphim Hunter, who said he’s smoked for 50 years.

While he said he could understand restrictions on smoking in confined spaces like offices or restaurants, banning it in people’s private homes and open-air places like parks was “un-American,” he said.

“I don’t want to have some bureaucrat make me miserable, make me a criminal, for something I’ve been doing virtually all my life that’s not bothering other people,” Hunter said.

Others said second hand smoke is more than a nuisance.

Niqueollette McGowan described how she and her 7-year-old son suffer from respiratory illnesses including asthma and smoke allergies. She said their conditions are exacerbated by smoke from neighboring units that gets into her home despite the sheets of plastic she tapes over openings to block it daily.

“I don’t want anyone to have to change their life altogether. I just want them to not make us sicker,” McGowan said.

City planners explained that the City Council had instructed them to study expanding the reach of the city’s anti-smoking ordinance, which was last updated in 2006 when smoking on restaurant patios was barred. The goal is to reduce the health impact of secondhand smoke, city planner Erin Morris told the group.

“It’s really not about the smoker; it’s about the smoke,” she said.

The city defines smoking as “inhaling, exhaling, burning or carrying any lighted pipe, cigar or cigarette of any kind, or any other combustible substance.”

That means e-cigarettes and marijuana smoking are covered by the city’s existing rules, and the update will make that clear, Morris said.

“Our smoking ordinance defines smoking as including smoking anything. So it doesn’t matter if it’s marijuana, cloves, tobacco — it’s all regulated the same,” Morris said.

The ban would cover all city-owned properties, including parks, recreational facilities, trails, the golf course, buildings, parking lots and bus stops. It would also include “service areas” such as ATMs, cab stands and ticket lines, she explained.

But the most significant change would be the extension of the ban to cover multi-family dwel lings, defined as any two dwellings that share a wall. This would include duplexes, apartments, townhouses and condominiums. Detached single-family homes would not be covered by the ban.

Andrew Wernette, the owner of a large apartment complex in the city, said while city officials say the goal isn’t to run smokers out of town, that’s the effect the ban will have.

“The reality is you’re going to make people find a way to stop smoking or move,” he said.

The change would be phased in over one year to give tenants and landlords time to adjust, Morris said. She also said the city was within its rights to restrict smoking in private residences.

“Smoking is not a protected right under the Constitution and the law,” she said.

Smoker Cindy Tomasini said that while it may be legal, that doesn’t make it right.

“You are trying to tell us what we can do in our rented property. I pay rent in that property, I should be able to do whatever I want there,” with the exception of criminal activity, she said.

The owner of e-cigarette retailer DigitalCiggz protested the devices he sells being included in the ban.

The health differences between cigarettes and e-cigarettes, which allow users to simulate smoking by inhaling vaporized liquid nicotine, are like “night and day,” said Michael Mullins.

Mullins acknowledged that the chemical constituents in e-cigarettes need to be studied further, but he said smoking conventional cigarettes is far more dangerous.

“Combustion is much different than vaporization. It is when something is lit on fire — that’s when the problems start. That’s when people get cancer,” he said.

The restrictions would probably apply to interior spaces of homes as well as patios and balconies in close proximity to windows and doorways, Morris said.

But it wouldn’t bar smoking from entire properties. The owners of multi-family housing complexes might be able to establish smoking areas if they were far enough away from doors, windows and air intake vents, Morris said.

The proposed changes will go to the Board of Community Services, which oversees parks, and the Planning Commission, which will be asked to update the zoning rules to specify that the city’s definition of smoke shop includes e-cigarette retailers, in October.

The issue would be decided by the City Council in December.