CITY HALL — Carol Riel and her 6-year-old daughter Griffin lived in a rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica immediately above another unit inhabited by heavy smokers.
Conditions got so bad that Carol had to move the asthmatic Griffin from room to room in the middle of the night to try to keep her away from the toxic secondhand smoke, despite open windows and several air purifiers.
“Our lungs were marinated in the smoke,” Carol said.
That’s when the young Griffin made a quiet plea to City Council members from the podium Tuesday night.
“My name is Griffin and smoking is very bad for kids, especially kids with asthma,” she said in a high-pitched voice, looking at the council members from her position in her mother’s arms. “Can you please make a law to stop smoking in apartment buildings, so this does not happen again?”
Griffin’s pleas may have touched hearts and reddened eyes, but it was backed up by a plethora of experts representing every organization from the American Lung Association to the heads of pediatrics departments that came to support a possible ordinance to ban smoking in apartment complexes.
Smoke can make its way through shared ventilation systems, even doorjambs and windows, which makes it a problem in multi-family dwellings, they said.
According to the American Cancer Society, secondhand smoke has over 4,000 chemical compounds, more than 60 of which are known or suspected to cause cancer.
Non-smokers can get cancer from inhaling these chemicals in secondhand smoke just as smokers can, the organization says.
In the United States alone, secondhand smoke is responsible for an estimated 46,000 heart disease related deaths in non-smokers, and 3,400 lung cancer deaths in non-smoking adults.
Santa Monica last tackled the issue of secondhand smoke in 2010, when it approved a ban on smoking in public spaces, including communal space within apartments.
At that time, council members requested that staff come back with information on options to require owners of condominiums to designate each unit smoking or non smoking and prohibit smoking in all newly-constructed hotels.
They also requested that staff look farther afield than Santa Monica to see what other cities were doing to contain the dangers of secondhand smoke.
Bans in Calabasas and South Pasadena both evolved from similar restrictions on smoking in public places, and eventually stretched into the realm of the apartment.
“First we started looking at public parks,” said Sergio Gonzalez, assistant city manager for South Pasadena. “We restricted it in public areas like parks and outdoor dining. We then looked at where people spend most of their time, and that’s at home.”
The South Pasadena ordinance, and the Calabasas ordinance that inspired it, allow owners of existing buildings to retain 20 percent of their units as smoker-friendly. The other 80 percent or more must be smoke-free, and grouped together to minimize the impact of the smoke.
South Pasadena then went a step farther, requiring that all new construction be 100 percent smoke-free.
Crafting a successful ordinance requires getting all the stakeholders together and trying to meet everyone’s needs, said Mary Sue Maurer, mayor pro tempore of Calabasas.
“I represented the city along with representatives from the business community and California Apartment Association of Los Angeles and a number of public health advocates,” Maurer said. “We worked closely and listened to each other, compromised and came up with an amendment that has worked beyond anyone’s expectations.”
It requires the minimum 80 percent smoke-free by Jan. 1, 2012, and classifies a violation as a “nuisance,” much like a noise violation. After a sufficient number of violations, the landlord can refuse to renew their contract.
To date, Maurer hasn’t heard of anyone being evicted under the ordinance.
The Santa Monica City Council stumbled over the concept of eviction, preferring enforcement through small claims courts rather than anything that could result in a tenant being removed from their homes.
Discussion concentrated on whether or not the ability to smoke in one’s apartment was a civil right, or the freedom from deadly smoke was a social justice issue.
“As much as a non-smoker has a right to clean air, a smoker has a right to housing,” summed up Mayor Pro Tempore Gleam Davis.
Mayor Richard Bloom and Councilmember Terry O’Day both said that the proposal to simply designate certain units as smoking or non-smoking did not go far enough.
Bloom pushed for a smoking ban in all new construction, and a review of the ability to impose a ban on existing hotels.
Council member Pam O’Connor, however, felt that the ban could be unduly burdensome on the poor, who are statistically more likely to smoke, according to the staff report, as well as the elderly who might not be able to make it out of their apartments to light up.
Furthermore, both she and Davis pointed out that smoking is still legal, and that restricting that activity was unsavory.
“I’m not going to demonize smokers,” O’Connor said.
The hotel issue, however, got little argument. Councilmembers for the most part agreed that hotels were already banning smoking on their own, and an additional ban would not be burdensome.
City staff will return before the council with ordinance options in coming months.