Few Protections Against Secondhand Smoke In California Apartments

(January 17, 2012)

California is not what you’d call a tobacco-friendly state. Smoking is banned in most public places, and state officials have classified secondhand smoke as a carcinogen.

But there’s one segment of California living where protections for non-smokers are sporadic at best.

In San Diego, it’s illegal to smoke on the beach, at a Padres game, and in a public park.

When you add in statewide restrictions on smoking in bars, restaurants, and workplaces, California has some of the nation’s toughest anti-smoking laws.

However, people who live in multifamily housing are left largely unprotected against exposure to secondhand smoke.

Ofelia Alvarado has lived in her Point Loma apartment since 1994. A few years ago, a smoker moved in upstairs. Alvarado said things got bad in a hurry.

"Well, if someone was smoking out here," she said outside her front door, " I would come home, and I could almost immediately smell it in this area. And then, if I left the door open, so my apartment would be fresh when I walked in, I would smell the smoke in here, similar to if someone had been smoking inside my apartment."

Alvarado said the smoke would permeate her apartment. And her body would protest.

'It would start with a burning nose, first, and then my throat, a headache," she recalled. "And then eventually, I started having heart palpitations. And that was so serious, that I had to go see a doctor."

Alvarado worked with the property manager to ban smoking on the premises.

Ironically, Alvarado does that kind of work for a living. As policy director for the American Lung Association in San Diego, she encourages communities here to establish smoke-free multifamily housing.

Alvarado said she gets a lot of calls from tenants complaining about neighbors who smoke.

"And I’m very glad, actually, to have gone through that experience," Alvarado said, "because I can understand, empathize, with their experience of having to tolerate second-hand smoke, and understand why they’re feeling so frustrated, or actually at their wit’s end about it."

To be sure, there are apartment houses in California that are smoke-free.

But statewide, only 20 cities and three counties have laws that ban or limit smoking in multifamily units. There are no communities in San Diego County that do so.

That’s due in part to stiff opposition from the San Diego County Apartment Association.

Executive Director Alan Pentico believes it’s wrong to force property owners to go smoke-free.

"So for us, the avenue is to allow the property owner to take the best approach appropriate for his property," Pentico said. "Instead of mandating it, give them the opportunity to decide what’s best on their property."

The San Diego County Housing Authority has done just that.

It owns 121 units in four different buildings in Chula Vista.

They all went smoke-free last July.

The County’s Assistant Director of Housing and Community Development, Todd Henderson, said protecting their tenants from second-hand smoke is the biggest benefit.

"The second one is reducing the possibility of fires. People smoking in bed, lighting the place on fire, obviously that’s a big concern," Henderson pointed out. "And then the cost involved of turning over property, that’s had a heavy smoker in it. The walls may be coated with smoke, and the deodorizing issue, carpet cleaning, things of that nature. There’s a hard cost associated with that," he said.

Besides banning smoking inside the apartments, there’s no smoking in any of the property’s common areas, either.

The only place tenants can light up is outside at one of the edges of the property.

As he puffed away, tenant Don Mitchell said he’s never smoked inside his apartment, anyway.

"Because my wife is an asthmatic, and she couldn’t tolerate it. So this is not an inconvenience for me, at all," Mitchell said.

Mitchell added it makes sense to force smokers to go outside, far away from other people.

"As a matter of fact I smoke less," he said. "Particularly when it’s cold out here."