Sonoma may stub out outdoor smoking

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At the red-checkered dining tables outside Sonoma’s Swiss Hotel across from the historic plaza, patrons sit next to the sidewalk sipping drinks and eating, a prime seat for watching tourists and locals stroll by.

But there is something a bit unexpected — even jarring — at some of the tables, considering the evolution statewide and nationally of laws designed to cut down exposure to secondhand smoke.

It’s an ashtray.

If customers dining on the front patio of the Swiss Hotel want to smoke a cigarette or a cigar, there is nothing to stop them from lighting up.

Unlike many other cities, Sonoma is a bit of an outlier, with no rules restricting outdoor smoking. While many municipalities and counties in California have rules prohibiting smoking in outdoor dining areas, commercial districts and parks, Sonoma has none. But that could change.

The City Council last week voted 4-1 to revise the city’s relatively lax ordinance and make it among the state’s toughest for protecting people from secondhand smoke.

But Sonoma voters have to approve it, likely on the November ballot. That’s because voters ratified the last set of public smoking guidelines in 1992 and need to sign off on any revisions to the city ordinance.

If the regulations are approved, the guidelines drafted by the City Council would prohibit smoking on all streets and sidewalks in the entire 2.7-square-mile town. People could no longer light up in the Sonoma Plaza or any public outdoor areas. And they would no longer be able to smoke at outdoor dining spots like the Swiss Hotel.

“Thank God. I’ve been waiting for the shoe to drop for 16 years,” said Swiss Hotel bartender Dan Dolan, who has worked inside the historic adobe building since 2000.

He said the cigar smoke from outside sometimes wafts into the building. “One of our chefs had a real bad reaction to it. We had to close the door.”

He said many locals know smoking is allowed at the tables out front. But tourists aren’t always as accommodating and sometimes object. Dolan said they end up being relocated to the back patio, where smoking is not permitted.

Health advocates say volunteers pick up hundreds of cigarette butts in the plaza after events like the annual city party, Fourth of July celebration, Bear Flag revolt commemoration and other occasions like the Tuesday night farmers market.

“There is very much a smoke problem on the plaza,” said Lori Bremner, a Sonoma-area resident and California grassroots director of the American Cancer Society Action Network.

Bremner said the city’s new ordinance, particularly the sweeping prohibition on outdoor tobacco use, “is one of the most comprehensive in the state.”

The ordinance also would crack down on smoking inside approximately 2,000 apartments and townhomes, where secondhand smoke can seep into neighboring units.

Similar prohibitions against indoor smoking in multifamily housing have recently been enacted in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Sebastopol and Cotati, as well as the unincorporated area of the county.

The new restrictions in Sonoma would extend to e-cigarettes and marijuana. Even chewing tobacco would not be allowed in public, because it is not considered a safe alternative to smoking.

“This is a giant leap forward for public health,” Pam Granger, of the Coalition for a Smoke Free Sonoma County, told the City Council before its vote last week.

There are California state laws that prohibit smoking inside bars and restaurants, as well as workplaces or near playgrounds. But rules for other outdoor areas are often left to local governments to decide.

There are nearly 400 outdoor smoking laws covering dining and bar patios across the nation, and more than 100 of those are in California, according to Americans for Non Smokers’ Rights, including prohibitions in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Sebastopol and the county of Sonoma.

There are 48 cities and counties in California that restrict smoking on sidewalks and commercial areas. But few, other than Calabasas, El Cerrito and Loma Linda, appear to be as far-reaching as the Sonoma proposal.

“I think we took a step beyond most places as far as streets and sidewalks,” said Assistant City Attorney Valerie Pistole, who said the smoking prohibitions will be easier to enforce because they are so comprehensive.

So where will smokers be able to indulge in Sonoma if voters approve the new regulations? Inside single-family residences, motor vehicles, mobile homes and in designated smoking areas, according to city officials.

But the designated smoking spots need to be clearly marked and at least 25 feet away from where smoking is not allowed.

Violators would be subject to a $100 fine on the first offense and up to $1,000 for additional violations.

The city attorney also would have the option of pursuing a misdemeanor complaint in the most egregious cases. And members of the public would have the right to take anyone who violates the ordinance two or more times to small claims court, with the potential to collect damages against a smoking scofflaw.

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