A California bill passed by the state Senate last week regarding smoking in apartments could have a major impact in West Hollywood by giving landlords ammunition to evict smokers.
Senate Bill 332 introduced earlier this year by Senator Alex Padilla (20th Senate District, which covers most of the San Fernando Valley) would allow landlords to declare a rental unit or an entire apartment complex non-smoking. It passed the Senate on a 33-2 vote without debate, and now heads to the Assembly.
While many apartment complexes already have smoke-free policies, there is nothing in current law that explicitly permits a landlord to restrict smoking.
West Hollywood Mayor John Duran is disturbed by the implications of the bill. “I would oppose it, because it would give the landlords another tool to remove tenants from rent-control units,” Duran said.
According to the latest Census figures, 78 percent of West Hollywood residents live in rental units. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, 20 percent of West Hollywood residents smoke, compared to 14 percent in Los Angeles County.
If passed, the bill would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2012. However, as currently written, the bill has a provision that if a city already has a local ordinance regarding apartment smoking in place prior to that date, the city’s law would stand.
West Hollywood currently does not have an apartment smoking ordinance. Duran, who was bitterly opposed to the city’s new outdoor smoking ban, says he would have to wait and see what happens in Sacramento before deciding if the city should adopt a weaker ordinance.
So far, the bill has largely flown under the radar. In fact, Duran was unaware of it until Weho Patch asked him about it.
“I’m surprised tenants rights groups aren’t opposing it,” Duran said. “I’m sure there are a lot of residents who would like to see their neighbors removed because they smoke, but that’s not what West Hollywood is about.”
In 2007, Councilwoman Abbe Land considered sponsoring an apartment smoking ban due to concerns about second-hand smoke, but dropped the idea because of the potential for evictions.
Weho resident Brett Jeffries, who lives in a 78-unit building on Larrabee Street, is someone who is irritated by his neighbors smoking on their balconies.
“I come home and the whole place smells like cigars,” said Jeffries. “People say I should close my windows, but I should be able to enjoy the fresh air too.”
While Jeffries describes himself as a militant anti-smoker, he is not in favor of someone being evicted simply because they smoke. “I’m militant about it, but I’m also fair,” he said. He believes apartment buildings should create designated smoking areas.
Another anti-smoker wasn’t as generous. “There is no right to smoke,” he said. “Smokers are filthy and disgusting. If they won’t quit, then evict them.”
Weho resident Shelia Lightfoot, a smoker, is appalled but not surprised by the bill.
“Smokers are such a minority, this lends itself perfectly to the tyranny of the majority over the minority,” Lightfoot said. “Then again, anti-smoking zealots consider smokers sub-human, so I guess the Constitution doesn’t apply.”
Lightfoot worries about civil liberties and the right to do what one pleases in the privacy of one’s home.
“For every individual right, you'll find people against it,” she said. “Have we not learned in all our history that our own rights can only exist as long as we are willing to protect the rights of others?”
Another Weho smoker summed it up: “We are well passed the nanny state and now into the bully state."
Second-hand smoke concerns
In authoring the bill, Padilla said he wanted to create more smoke-free housing options. His bill cites the health dangers of second-hand smoke, which is estimated to cause 49,000 deaths per year in the United States.
In 2006, the California state Air Resources Board classified second-hand smoke as a toxic air contaminant, the same category it places automobile exhausts and industrial air pollutants.
The U.S. Surgeon General stated in 2010 that there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke.
Dr. Michael Siegel, a tobacco-control advocate, who teaches at Boston University’s School of Public Heath, recently challenged the Surgeon General’s statement and other second-hand-smoke research.
In a New York Times op-ed piece, Siegel criticized the lack of scientific integrity in many second-hand-smoke studies, saying “in trying to convince people that even transient exposure to second-hand smoke is a potentially deadly hazard, smoking opponents risk losing scientific credibility.”
A longtime anti-smoking advocate who is disturbed by what he considers unethical actions by the tobacco-control movement, Siegel writes a daily watchdog blog which monitors tobacco-control activities and analyzes smoking-related public policy.