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Few Protections Against Secondhand Smoke In California Apartments

Evening Edition

California is not what you’d call a tobacco-friendly state. Smoking is banned in most public places, and state officials have classified second-hand smoke as a carcinogen. But KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg tells us there’s one segment of California living where protections for non-smokers are sporadic at best.

— 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.

Aired 1/17/12 on KPBS News.

Only three counties and 20 cities in California have laws that ban or limit smoking in multifamily housing.

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."

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

Video by Katie Euphrat

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Avatar for user 'alpoat60'

alpoat60 | January 17, 2012 at 9:10 a.m. ― 5 years, 2 months ago

My partner and I have been having this problem - the smell of smoke is sometimes strong in our apartment - and neither of us smokes. More concerning to me is the potential for second hand smoke issues. Our condo association said it is "our problem to solve" - which was not helpful.

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | January 17, 2012 at 10:33 a.m. ― 5 years, 2 months ago

You could try talking to the guy. Let him know what is bothering you and ask him to stop. If the smoker persists, start watering your plants with a splashy sprinkler when he goes out to light-up.

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Avatar for user 'Satariel'

Satariel | January 17, 2012 at 12:43 p.m. ― 5 years, 2 months ago

I hate it when my filthy neighbors smoke. I have to keep all of my windows shut otherwise I smell stinking cigarette smoke every 15 minutes.

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Avatar for user 'mungo'

mungo | January 17, 2012 at 5:13 p.m. ― 5 years, 2 months ago

building construction allows the problem. apartments/condos/homes are not airtight so smells of all types can permeate the building. Ever have neighbors who have exotic/stinky food preferences ? I'd like to ban that too.

@benz72, such action will just provoke the neighbor & he might decide to leave stinky cheap cigars burning all day. Or stinky incense. Or just get really nasty.

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Avatar for user 'fz10bee'

fz10bee | January 18, 2012 at 9:47 a.m. ― 5 years, 2 months ago

Hi Friends!
There is a smoking nuisance ordinance in progress at the Public Safety & Neighborhood Service Committee (PS&NS) in the City of San Diego that is directed to protect people living in multi-unit housing; renters and condo owners suffered from secondhand smoke all the time. Both, HOA and Property Management Co. have different options to protect people but they hardly understand the issue.

This item will be docket in the February or March agenda to go to full Council. You have to contact your local representative and the PS&NS Chair, M. Emerald, explain your story and ask them to take action and support this ordinance, if you feel that there should be a full ban or stronger ordiance then express that in your massage or to whomever you are leaving the message with. TAKE ACTION!

City Council Members of SD contact PS&NS Committee Consultant, Drew Ector at (619) 236-7038. Email: />If you would like to learn more and participate in public comment, please contact me  Thanks!

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