A Guide to California's Proposed Ban on Smoking in Apartments

It’s move-in day. You’re sitting in the great new condo you just bought. And suddenly you catch a whiff of cigarettes coming from next door. If you’re a healthy-living type, your home-buyer happiness may be gone in a puff of smoke.

Now California Assemblyman Mark Levine, D-Marin, is trying to address that problem with a statewide ban on smoking in multiunit housing.

What would the bill do?

AB 746, currently in the Assembly Housing and Community Development  Committee, would ban smoking in “any residential property containing two or more units with one or more shared walls, floors, ceilings, or ventilation systems.”

It would be one of the toughest smoking laws in the country, and affect some 12 million Californians, Michael Krasny explained on KQED’s Forum Wednesday.

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Why is the bill being proposed?

“When we sent our children to school, we send them to a smoke-free environment,” said Levine on the show. “When we go to work we have protections because of state law to work in a smoke-free environment. Where we should feel safest in our own homes, where we sleep each night, is not protected.”

The U.S. Surgeon General says there is no safe level of exposure to the smoke, but 4.6 million-4.9 million Californians are exposed to it in multiunit housing against their wishes. The smoke can pass through walls as well as ventilation, said Levine.

“We’re not trying to stop people from smoking here, what we’re trying to do is protect the people who want to breathe clean air from having to breathe this toxic air contaminant,” said Levine.

One caller to the show from Miami, Fla., wished there was a similar law where he lived:

My wife and I recently bought a condo in Miami where there are no such laws, and we discovered after we bought that our next door neighbors are a couple of great guys, very respectful and are aware that their second hand smoke permeates into other units and into the hallways. But they are addicted. They are smokers. There is not really much we can do about it. So the one thing I would like to say is if you are considering buying an apartment or a condo be very careful who you are buying next to.

That point of view is shared by most people in multiunit housing, said Levine. He cited a poll by the American Lung Association showing that 82% of California renters would prefer to live in an apartment complex where they don’t have to breathe second-hand smoke.

The law is consistent with others on the books, such as those that restrict playing loud music late at night, or smoking in a car with a baby, he said.

Who opposes it?

The bill is raising concerns not only among smokers but also among landlords who fear they will be liable for renting to smokers, said Debra Carlton, senior vice president of public affairs for the California Apartment Association. “We can’t enter the unit without the tenants’ agreement,” she said. “But at the same time it tells landlords you are responsible for the actions of your tenants.”

The Apartment Association acknowledges that second-hand smoke is a problem and has not officially opposed the bill, but wants closer scrutiny of its implications. “We want to make sure we do this right in not putting people out in the streets, but at the same time we’re not harming the tenants next door who don’t want to breathe second-hand smoke,” said Carlton.

How would it be enforced?

One caller to the show, Ned, saw the bill as an invasion of privacy: “Are we going to put cameras in people’s homes to make sure they’re not smoking? I mean this is ridiculous. Don’t you have anything better to do than to go to people’s homes and tell them what to do?”

Carlton said landlords will run into particular problems enforcing the regulation in jurisdictions with rent control because it’s so difficult to evict tenants.

Levine responded that already 40 local jurisdictions, and 18 housing authorities have passed some sort of prohibition on smoking in multiunit housing. “I was part of passing this in San Rafael where we had a 100% ban. Enforcement has not been a problem at all.”

Ray, a Sonoma County landlord, phoned the show to say enforcement is very much a problem there. He said one county ordinance restricted smoking near doorways and windows, then another prohibited smoking indoors. That has put him in an awkward position with his smoking tenants. “I can’t evict my people,” he said. “They’ve been living here for years. What am I supposed to do, go and chase them around?”

What about medical Marijuana?

Other callers worried that medical marijuana smoker would lose access to their medicine, but Levine said the law would apply only to tobacco smoke.