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Sonoma eyes wider smoking ban

Geoff Ames of Vancouver smokes a cigarette in the Sonoma Plaza while on vacation on Tuesday, March 11, 2014. The City of Sonoma is considering a smoking ban on the historic plaza. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

ELOÍSA RUANO GONZÁLEZ , THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Smoking is already prohibited in bars and restaurants, but Sonoma city officials are looking at extending the restrictions to apartment complexes, attached townhomes and outdoor spaces throughout town, including the bustling plaza.

The Sonoma City Council will meet Monday to discuss whether smoking should be banned in such places and if e-cigarettes and medical marijuana should be included. In addition to apartments and condos, it’s also weighing possible smoking restrictions in areas like sports arenas, bingo halls, parking garages, senior housing facilities and new buildings.

The discussion comes on the heels of a tobacco retail licensing ordinance the Sonoma City Council approved earlier this year. The measure, which went into effect last month, not only requires the 15 existing tobacco retailers within Sonoma’s boundaries to obtain a license from the city for $246 a year, but also prohibits new businesses from selling cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and other products. It also bans the sale of e-cigarettes, cheap cigars and most flavored tobacco in town.

Sonoma resident Elizabeth Emerson voiced hope that council members will take similar action and tighten regulations on smoking in public areas.

Emerson, a public health consultant who works to reduce smoking, brought the issue forward to then-Mayor Tom Rouse last year after learning that the city of 11,000 had received an “F” on an American Lung Association report card for its efforts to restrict second-hand smoke — far behind Rohnert Park, Sebastopol and Sonoma County, each of which received a B.

“We’re hoping they’ll have the same courage — as they did with the tobacco retail licensing — to become a leader and a model for other California communities in protecting their residents, workers and visitors from the health and safety hazards of smoking and vaping,” she said of Sonoma council members.

She said she also was motivated by some neighbors whose smoking had been creating problems for others in her condo community.

“You smell it if you have the windows open,” Emerson said. “There are small children in our complex. It creates an unhealthy environment for children and seniors.”

Further restrictions are sure to get pushback from smokers and the tobacco and e-cigarette industry. Some previously complained that prohibiting smoking outdoors and on the plaza was overkill and enforcing tighter regulations would be too difficult.

The regulations haven’t changed in the city since a statewide ban on smoking in bars, clubs and restaurants was imposed in the mid-1990s, City Manager Carol Giovanatto said.

“A lot of things have changed,” Mayor David Cook said. “I welcome discussion on the issues.”

Cook said he’s on the fence on the matter and wanted to hear more from residents, particularly since restrictions could impact those living in apartments.

“You’re talking about private residences,” Cook said. “You’re telling people what they can or cannot do in their homes.”

He added, “People have the right to smoke, but people have the right to breathe fresh air.”

Emerson said that public health advocates like her aren’t asking the council to take away someone’s right to smoke. They’re asking to limit the places where people can smoke, she said.

“They only ask for protection for non-smokers and especially vulnerable populations, like children and seniors,” Emerson said.

The five-member council isn’t expected to make a final decision Monday. Although the issue surfaced last year and was tabled, City Manager Carol Giovanatto said it’s the first time it will come before the current council, which includes three new members — Madolyn Agrimonti, Gary Edwards and Rachel Hundley.

City employees need more direction on how to move forward with any potential ordinance, Giovanatto said. Officials plan to work with local businesses on the issue, she added.

There are nearly 2,000 townhomes and multi-family dwelling units within the city, Giovanatto said. If the council ultimately approves a ban on smoking in those dwellings, the city would give landlords time to make changes to leases and residents time to adapt, she said.

“You’ve got to give existing tenants time to change their habits,” she said. “It’s not a habit a lot of people like or appreciate, (but) it’s a habit hard to break.”

Monday’s meeting is at 6 p.m. in the Community Meeting Room at 177 First St. West, Sonoma.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.