[San Mateo County] Grand jury: Government can do more about secondhand smoke

Smoking bans aren’t universally effective


Whether to ban smoking in apartments along the Coastside has been smoldering for years. But do ordinances that prohibit smoking in multiunit housing actually protect San Mateo County residents from exposure to secondhand smoke? 

The San Mateo County civil grand jury reported last week that the answer is still somewhat hazy.

In its July 26 report, “Smoke-Free Multiunit Housing: No Ifs, Ands or Butts,” investigators acknowledge that while these ordinances have helped to secure the legal rights of apartment-dwellers, it’s hard to determine their overall impact and effectiveness. Beyond that, the grand jury learned that many jurisdictions with smoking ordinances haven’t done enough to educate their own residents. 

Eighty-two percent of people who live in San Mateo County’s apartment complexes are protected by ordinances passed in their jurisdictions. Currently, Half Moon Bay does not have a ban on smoking in multiunit residences.

Secondhand smoke — also known as “involuntary” or “passive” smoke — is a cocktail of the smoke generated by the cigarettes themselves and the white plumes of gases and particulate matter exhaled by the person holding them. In 2010, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that even occasionally breathing in secondhand smoke is harmful. Additionally, low levels of secondhand tobacco smoke inflame and impair the lining of blood vessels, which can lead to heart attacks and stroke. 

According to the American Lung Association, secondhand smoke is the cause of over 7,000 deaths from lung cancer and more than 33,000 deaths from heart disease each year. 

Research has shown that Americans spend nearly two-thirds of their time in personal residences. With all that time at home, nonsmokers living in multiunit housing — where smoke in one unit can seep into adjacent ones — are at greater risk of being exposed to secondhand smoke.

In 2007, Belmont passed the country’s first ordinance banning smoking in multiunit housing. Since then, eight additional cities across San Mateo County have adopted similar prohibitions. San Mateo County passed a similar ordinance governing unincorporated areas.

Over the course of its investigation, which included interviews with local law enforcement, the grand jury discovered that many of these jurisdictions didn’t sufficiently inform residents about their rights and obligations. The report also indicates that, at the time when their ordinances were added, these cities conducted limited public outreach. 

“The grand jury recommends that San Mateo County jurisdictions with ordinances prohibiting smoking in multiunit housing do more to ensure residents know of their rights and responsibilities,” said grand jury foreman Richard Edminster in a prepared statement.

Law enforcement officers reported that most of the alleged smokers they spoke with following a complaint said they were unfamiliar with the restrictions. Residents exposed to secondhand smoke are advised to report a violation of multiunit housing smoking ordinances to enforcement officers. 

The grand jury also recommends that those cities, like Half Moon Bay, without smoking ordinances for multiunit housing, hold public hearings to evaluate the issue — and acknowledge their residents’ views on adopting new restrictions. 

Despite the fact that 80 percent of the multiunit housing residents surveyed indicated they preferred smoke-free housing, and that only 6.6 percent of San Mateo County residents smoke, smoking bans remain controversial. Often, the debate attempts to juggle an individual’s right to enjoy a cigarette with the public’s right to a clean, healthy environment. 

That’s certainly been the case in Half Moon Bay. But after tabling the issue for almost two years, the city revisited the idea of adopting new smoking ordinances this past February.

August 1, 2018

Half Moon Bay Review

By Alex Orlando