Santa Rosa ban on smoking inside attached housing units nears vote

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


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.”

“I think it needs to be treated distinctly because it’s a distinct product,” she said.

Carlstrom asked city staff to draft an exemption for medical marijuana users. The idea isn’t unprecedented. Sebastopol specifically excludes pot from its smoking definition. Santa Rosa officials, however, view such a carve-out for smoking marijuana as prohibited by state law.

Vaporizing it, however, is another matter. If the council wants to exempt medical marijuana users, it could do so by allowing qualified users to vaporize cannabis in their homes. That option is included for the council’s consideration Tuesday.

Carlstrom noted the city crafted an exemption to existing rules to allow workers at cannabis dispensaries to smoke on the job.

“That’s a very narrowly drawn exemption, and we managed to pull that off,” she said.

It is not, however, something city staff is recommending, citing enforcement challenges and “secondhand impacts” of electronic smoking devices.

“If the intent of the current smoking ordinance is to protect people from secondhand smoke and vapor, then it doesn’t make sense to treat medical marijuana differently,” city planner Erin Morris said.

If approved, the new regulations would also apply to all city-owned properties, including parks, recreational facilities, trails, the golf course, buildings, parking lots and bus stops.

They would also include “service areas” such as ATMs, cab stands and ticket lines. Smokers would have to stay a “reasonable distance” away from such areas.

At the council’s request, city staff explored possibly exempting the Bennett Valley Golf Course from the new regulations. Doing so is possible, but would be inconsistent with other municipal courses in the area, city staff found

The owners and renters of single-family homes would not be affected by the rules, a reality that has raised equity issues. But even they could be affected by the new ordinance if the council chooses to declare smoking a public nuisance, which it may also do Tuesday.

Such a move could make it easier for residents to pursue legal action when secondhand smoke from neighboring properties drifts onto their own.

If approved, the new regulations would become effective May 9 but be phased in over a year. The prohibitions for city owned properties, service areas, and requirement for hotels and motels to keep 75 of their rooms smoke free would go into effect at that point.

Multi-family units would be phased in, with people on month-to-month and those signing new leases required to be smoke-free by July 8.

Smoke-free language would be added to leases as they expire, with all units covered by May 9, 2016.

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