Santa Monica gets B on smoking report card

(January 20, 2012)

Santa Monica is falling short on its efforts to regulate tobacco use in multi-family residences, according to a report released Thursday by the American Lung Association.

The report, called the State of Tobacco Control 2012, is an annual assessment for incorporated cities and counties across the nation that evaluates municipalities' work in reducing tobacco sales and making outdoor spaces and apartment complexes smoke-free.

Santa Monica received a B-grade for its overall efforts in tobacco control in 2012, not budging from the previous year in which the city received top marks for its work in cleaning up the air and reducing tobacco sales.

But City Hall got a D in the smokefree multi-family housing category.

Mayor Richard Bloom viewed the grade as a nudge from the association, but concluded that Santa Monica is making solid progress on its smoking habit.

"We suffered with a poor beach report card from Heal the Bay for many years and kept plugging away until we fixed it," Bloom wrote in an e-mail. "Yet, no one in their right mind would ever say that Santa Monica is not one of the most environmentally conscious, activist cities in the country.

A 2010 ordinance ended smoking in communal spaces like laundry rooms, hallways, outdoor eating areas or swimming pools, but there are no policies on the books to restrict or end smoking in apartment buildings and other shared housing, which experts say can create a health hazard for smokers and non smokers alike.

In that category, City Hall only received "points" for regulating smoking in shared spaces, which earned it a D grade in that category, said Jennifer Paul, program director for the American Lung Association in California.

Staff is expected to bring an ordinance dealing with smoking in multi-family residences before the City Council within a month after a similar measure was shot down in December over concerns for elderly smokers and privacy issues.

The American Lung Association grades cities and counties on three categories — creating smokefree housing, restricting smoking in the outdoors and reducing the sale of tobacco products.

City Hall received high marks for its efforts to prevent people from lighting up outdoors. Smoke free public spaces now include elevators, the Santa Monica Pier, any Farmers' Market or the property in front of the library, to name a few.

The American Lung Association also awarded it an A-grade for reducing sales by creating a specific license to sell tobacco, which costs each purveyor $149.13 in the 2012 fiscal year, according to the Finance Department.

The City Council took that action in 2008.

That doesn't give officials leeway to rest on their laurels, Paul said.

The City Council could move to strengthen ordinances to protect people walking on sidewalks or at worksites, or prevent sales of tobacco products near schools, parks or in pharmacies.

If City Hall put in place the strongest recommended protections, there wouldn't be many places for smokers to turn, Paul said.

"What would be left is any (single-family) homes, private yards, or in your car," she said, noting that you can't smoke in the car if a minor is on board. "Just not in public areas where other people could be exposed."

Some council members have balked in the past at placing such stringent restrictions on an otherwise legal activity, particularly in a city of renters where restricting smoking in multi-family residences would be keenly felt.

An anti-smoking ordinance presented in December would have required landlords to publish lists of smokers and nonsmokers in their buildings, which some felt would violate privacy.

Those who failed to respond would automatically have their apartments designated smoke free, which could result in hefty fines for the elderly who smoke and might not understand what was being asked of them, others argued.

The risks to renters are too great to bow to the arbitrary grading scale of some local agency, wrote Councilmember Kevin McKeown in an e-mail.

"Santa Monica has for many years earned an A+ for housing stability and the protection of renters and homeowners," McKeown wrote.

Councilmember Bob Holbrook, a pharmacist, voted in December to move forward with the restrictions anyway, citing the mounting medical evidence provided by the government and other health agencies concerning the dangers of secondhand smoke.

"I believe that if we adopt the measures necessary to receive an 'A' grade from the American Lung Association, we will improve the quality of health for our residents and save lives," Holbrook wrote in an e-mail Thursday.

According to the Center for Disease Control, secondhand smoke is responsible for higher rates of heart disease amongst nonsmokers, which can result in 46,000 deaths annually in the United States.

The agency also attributes 3,400 lung cancer deaths annually amongst adult nonsmokers in the country.

The American Lung Association in California is looking to combat that with a $1 tax on packs of cigarettes in California. That measure will appear on the June 5 ballot, Paul said.

The California Cancer Research Act would raise an estimated $855 million per year for cancer research, smoking cessation programs and tobacco control efforts.

California currently ranks 33rd in the nation for the amount of taxes levied on cigarettes, coming in at 87 cents per pack of 20 cigarettes. The national average across the 50 states is $1.46.

Even if the government slaps another tax on cigarettes, it won't do much to curb smoking, said Moe Taheri, owner of Santa Monica Tobacco.

"If they add the extra dollar to the cost of cigarettes, customers will just be switching from a more expensive brand to a less expensive brand," Taheri said.

Less expensive brands might have less tobacco and more additives, which could mean choosing a cigarette that's even worse for a smokers' health, Taheri said.


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