Walnut Creek passes toughest secondhand smoking law in the Contra Costa County

By Elisabeth Nardi
September 18, 2013, Contra Costa Times/San Jose Mercury News

WALNUT CREEK — Finding a place to smoke in this city is about to get a whole lot tougher.

By February, those who live in apartments, condos and townhomes will no longer be allowed to smoke tobacco inside or outside of their homes. And there will be no place to smoke downtown by Christmas.

The City Council passed a strict secondhand-smoking ordinance Tuesday night that bans smoking in all multiunit residences, all of downtown, all recreational areas and all commercially zoned properties where there are outdoor dining areas or outdoor service areas, anyplace within 25 feet of entryways and operable windows, and in all public places. The council made an exemption, however, that does not require public or private golf courses to be smoke-free. And it doesn’t outlaw smoke from medical marijuana.

Anti-smoking advocates lauded the council for the law’s passage, and it’s something most council members have wanted for a long time.

“I am proud to hear that … it will be the toughest secondhand smoke ordinance in the county,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kristina Lawson. “That is exactly where the city of Walnut Creek should be on an issue like this.”

Signs will pop up around Walnut Creek warning smokers not to light up, and will also provide a phone number for people to call to report someone smoking. Violators would be cited with fines starting at $100 for the first infraction, $300 for the second and $500 thereafter. After that, the new law gives the city attorney power to bring a civil suit against an offender.

That is something Councilman Justin Wedel found especially troubling, saying it demonizes smoking and gives the government too much power. Lawson disagreed, saying this law is meant to protect people’s health.

Most smoking in and around multifamily units will have to cease by Feb. 1. In other areas, such as downtown, the prohibition will likely go into effect in December.

The most controversial portion of the law centers on banning smoking in and around new and existing multifamily housing, including balconies and outdoor areas. Residents Tuesday night detailed how difficult it is to live next to door to a smoker, and said they worried for their health.

But others argued that city leaders regulating what people do in their own homes is extreme, and wrong.

Resident Curt Bender said it is unfair of the council to impose this new law on landlords who then have to comply or throw out their tenants who smoke. He argued that if the city bans smoking for people’s health, it should then ban other things as well.

“I think you should be banning McDonald’s and Burger King, too,” he said.

But others disagreed that prohibiting smoking was akin to banning fatty foods or sugary sodas.

“I believes it’s probably one of the most important actions that this council has ever taken in regards of saving lives of people,” said Karen Perkins, a Rossmoor resident. “Smoke is not like a hamburger; it goes through the air.”

The lone vote against the secondhand-smoking ordinance was Wedel’s. While he is a nonsmoker and supports prohibiting it in public places, he has a fundamental problem with such a ban on private property.

“We are severely depriving some individuals of their property rights,” he said.

Theresa Karr of the California Apartment Association said her group is not against the ordinance, but said property owners and tenants should get at least a year’s notice before the law is implemented.

“You have to have some compassion; their only crime is that they are smokers,” she said.

Other cities such as Richmond, Martinez and Pleasant Hill and unincorporated Contra Costa County have enacted similar secondhand-smoking ordinances.

But unlike cities such as Richmond, which gave existing multifamily unit owners more than a year to convert to nonsmoking, Walnut Creek leaders felt that 90 days was enough time.

The final reading of the ordinance is scheduled for the council’s Oct. 1 meeting.

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