California Town Bans Smoking in Condos and Apartments That Share Walls

In one California town, you can't smoke in your home if it shares a wall.

November 21, 2013, 7:11 AM

Nov. 21, 2013 -- The town of San Rafael, Calif., has passed a ban on smoking that city officials have called the most stringent in the nation. The new ordinance makes it illegal for residents to smoke in their own homes if they share a wall with another dwelling.

The ban applies to owners and renters alike, and it covers condominiums, co-ops, apartments and any multi-family residence containing three or more units.

Rebecca Woodbury, an analyst at the San Rafael City Manager's office, helped craft the ban, which took effect Nov.14. "We based it on a county ordinance," she told ABC News, "but we modified it, and ended up making it the strictest. I'm not aware of any ordinance that's stronger."

Cities with similar but less severe smoking restrictions include Cambridge, Mass., and other California cities, including Walnut Creek and Tiburon. In June, the Related Companies became the first developer and property owner to ban smoking in all 40,000 of its rental residences in 17 states.

New York City bans tobacco sales to anyone under 21.

Jessica Scaperotti, a spokeswoman for Related, said the ban had been popular. "There are more people who want to live in smoke-free environments than there are apartments available. Demand far exceeds supply."

The provisions that make San Rafael's rule unique, said Woodbury, include the prohibition on smoking in dwellings that share a wall, including owner-occupied condos, duplexes and multi-family units. "It doesn't matter if it's owner-occupied or renter-occupied. We didn't want to discriminate. The distinguishing feature is the shared wall."

As justification for the rule, she cited studies showing that secondhand smoke seeped through ventilating ducts and walls, even through cracks. "It depends on a building's construction," she said, "but it does affect the unit next door, with the negative health impacts due to smoke."

The ordinance cites such studies, plus a 2011 study by UCLA that found that California property owners paid up to $18 million a year to clean apartments vacated by tenants who'd smoked.

Asked if there was opposition to the ordinance, Woodbury said there was hardly any. "We have a very low percentage of smokers in the county," she said, referring to Marin.

George Koodray, New Jersey state coordinator for Citizens Freedom Alliance and the Smoker's Club, called San Rafael's rule and ones like it "mischievous." Years ago, he said, when restrictions on smoking were first introduced, "the spirit of the legislation was supposedly to protect people who did not want to be exposed to smoke." Today, he said, the motivating spirit had changed: People disapprove of the habit, and wish to restrict it whether or not it affects them directly. Bans like San Rafael's, he believes, are far removed from being a sincere effort to bring about a health benefit.

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"I don't believe it's rooted in science," said Koodray, who is president of the Metropolitan Society, a group of New Jersey cigar smokers. "Someone smoking in a sealed apartment endangers the health of others in the building? The science for that is spurious at best."

Steve Stanek, a research fellow at the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, which he calls a free market-oriented public policy group, views the San Rafael ban as part of a wider trend: a proliferation of rules of all kinds.

"I don't like cigarettes, and I've never taken a puff," he said. "My sympathies aren't with smokers because I am one, it's because of the huge growth in laws and punishments and government restricting people more and more." Illinois' criminal code was 72 pages long in 1965, he said; today it's more than 1,300 pages long. "The encroachment of government is astonishing," he said.

A look around the U.S. finds towns and cities busily regulating anything and everything:

Plastic bags will be banned in Los Angeles after the first of the year. They're already banned in San Jose, Calif.

Austin, Texas, bans both plastic and paper bags from grocery stores.

San Francisco tried to ban fast-food meals that came with toys.

Forest Park, Ga., in 2011 made it illegal to breastfeed in public a child older than 2. After public protest, the ban was lifted.

Cocoa, Fla., makes it illegal to wear baggy pants on city streets.

Palo Alto, Calif., makes it illegal to live in your car.

And under Section 63-19-2430 of the South Carolina code, it's illegal for a minor under the age of 18 to play a pinball machine.