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Santa Rosa bans smoking in attached homes

Smokers who live in the Bethlehem Towers in Santa Rosa light up outside in a designated smoking area in 2015. (JOHN BURGESS/ PD)

KEVIN MCCALLUM , THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

After nearly a year of discussion, the Santa Rosa City Council enacted a sweeping ban on smoking in attached homes Tuesday, carving out narrow exemptions for those who use medicinal marijuana and e-cigarettes.

The new ordinance, which aims to reduce the health impacts of secondhand smoke, prohibits smoking in the 25,000 apartments, duplexes and condominiums that about 62,000 residents call home.

Advocates of e-cigarettes, as they have in the past, urged the council not to include their increasingly popular nicotine-delivery devices into the definition of smoking, but to no avail.

“I support people’s right to smoke. I support people’s right to vape,” said Vice Mayor Chris Coursey. “But I also support people’s right not to inhale what’s coming out of your cigarette or device.”

The new rules also ban smoking in city recreational properties and parks and outdoor service areas like lines for ATMs, food vendors, movie theaters and bus stops.

If approved at a second reading next week, the ordinance will be phased in over 13 months. It will go into effect Aug. 7 for city parks, Oct. 6 for residents of multi-family complexes on month-to-month leases, and by Aug. 7, 2016, for everyone else.

The council previously had exempted medical marijuana users from the ban as long as they vaporized the drug, reasoning that medical marijuana is a legal right in the state and vaporizing it would likely have less impact on neighbors.

Much of Tuesday’s debate centered on whether to grant additional exemptions for users of e-cigarettes, who turned out in force in a last-ditch effort to convince the council not to assume vaping is dangerous just because it resembles smoking.

The council previously had created an exemption for smoke shops to allow customers to sample e-smoking devices and liquids for customers 18 or older.

“Just because someone injects insulin doesn’t mean they’re doing heroin, but it does look like it,” Keith Butler told the council.

He and others urged the council to view claims about the health risks of e-cigarettes with skepticism and to resist pressure to ban it from groups like the American Lung Association.

Erick Beall, legislative adviser for the Northern California Chapter of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association, said some of the studies that the city relied on claiming health dangers to people in adjoining units have since been debunked and were “pretty much farcical.”

But others urged the council to include e-cigarettes in the smoking ban, arguing that the particulate matter from the vapor likely circulates between housing units or migrates through walls of attached units and businesses.

Daniel Shultz, owner of Not Of This World Icons bookstore on Mendocino Avenue, said he nearly had a vaping lounge move into the space next to his business last year. He said he worried the vapor would migrate through holes in the wall and affect his personal health (he said he suffers from asthma) and the “sensitive books and art” he sells.

“Imagine trying to explain to my customers why my children’s books smell like bubble gum and cherries,” Shultz said.

Mayor John Sawyer said he had been leaning toward allowing e-cigarette use inside multifamily units because he thought it unlikely the vapor would penetrate walls. But he said he changed his mind when he learned that some apartment complexes, like Bethlehem Towers for low-income seniors, have shared ventilation systems.

Given the unsettled science about the health impacts of vapor from e-cigarettes and their use by some as a way to help them quit smoking, the council sought to carve out a further exemption that allowed e-cigarette users to at least “vape” outdoors.

The council agreed to allow the activity in common areas of multifamily properties, but not in areas frequented by kids, such as pools and playgrounds.

“I don’t think I’d want someone vaping next to my kid on a swing,” Sawyer said. “It just seems wrong.”

The council passed the measure on a 4-2 vote, with Ernesto Olivares and Tom Schwedhelm weighing in against it. Erin Carlstrom was absent for the late-evening vote.

Olivares said he thought e-cigarette users should be restricted to designated smoking areas on the grounds of multifamily properties, reasoning it would be easier to enforce.

Schwedhelm said the studies he read showed vapor was far less dangerous than tobacco products and there was no scientific evidence vapor traveled between apartments.

“I’m really not in support of e-cigarettes, but what someone does in their own home is their business, not mine,” Schwedhelm said.

Wysocky voted in favor of the ban, but said he didn’t see why smoking or vaping had to be totally banned in public parks. He said it seemed reasonable to allow them as long as people remained 25 feet away from others. He said he saw problems enforcing complaints.

“Let’s get real. If there’s nobody else there …” he said. “I know we can’t regulate common courtesy, but I do feel that might be an overstep.”

Planner Erin Morris, who was praised for her thorough work on the issue, said complaints would be directed to a county health department hotline. Enforcement would then fall to the Police Department for complaints in public places or code enforcement for housing units.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.