The Secret Shame of the Furtive Smoker, Belmont Edition


The city of Belmont, California, which has been considering an ordinance that would make Clean Air Calabasas look like a smoke-filled bar (remember those?), gave initial approval to the measure last week. The law—which seems to be the most far-reaching smoking ban in the country, covering private residences as well as "public places"—will take effect after the city council votes on it a second time later this month.

The ordinance cites the dangers that secondhand smoke allegedly poses to bystanders, including its magical ability to do the same cardiovasacular damage to a nonsmoker in a half-hour that a smoker suffers after decades of directly inhaling tobacco combustion products. The legislation treats all property as "public" and all secondhand smoke exposure as "nonconsensual," even when people consent to it—as they do, for example, when they choose to enter a bar where the owner has decided to permit smoking. But the ban, like the one Calabasas passed last year, is also officially aimed at "reducing the potential for children to wrongly associate smoking and tobacco with a healthy lifestyle" and at "promoting the family atmosphere of the City's public places." 

In light of these ambitious goals, it's not surprising that Belmont's ban has a broad sweep. In fact, it's easier to list the places in Belmont where smoking will be permitted than to list the places where it will be prohibited. Here are the exceptions:

1) private residences that do not share any ceilings or walls with other private residences

2) outdoor smoking areas on the property of apartment or condominium buildings (when landlords choose to establish them), subject to various size and location constraints 

3) up to 10 percent of hotel rooms

4) automobiles (which some ban advocates wanted to cover)

5) streets and sidewalks, unless they are "outdoor workplaces" such as construction sites or the patios of bars or restaurants; the sites of city-sponsored events such as parades or fairs; "service areas" such as bus stops and ATM, taxi, or ticket lines; or located within 20 feet of an area where smoking is prohibited

6) tobacconists, as long as minors are barred from the premises

7) on theater stages "if smoking is an integral part of the story" 

Smoking will be banned pretty much everywhere else, including outdoor seating areas of bars and restaurants (where it's still allowed under state law), other "public places" (defined to include "any place, public or private, open to members of the general public"), and the homes of smokers, if they are unlucky enough to live in apartments or condominiums. That last detail is what allows Belmont to out-Calabasas Calabasas, especially since Belmont's ban, like the one in Calabasas, will in practice cover nearly all of the city's outdoor spaces. The staff report on the ordinance notes that the 20-foot buffer zone, for example, "would have the practical effect of prohibiting smoking anywhere on some downtown streets and sidewalks."

City officials emphasize that citations and fines for smoking in one's own home will be "complaint-driven," so that apartment-dwelling smokers will still be able to sneak a puff here and there as long as no one notices (or as long as those who notice do not care). Although such furtive smoking will still be considered a "public nuisance," it will go unpunished. This legal approach opens up an opportunity for small-time shakedowns by smokers' neighbors, who will be able to demand payment for their silence, as long as they ask for less than the fine, which starts at $100 but can hit $1,000 if the city brings a civil action. I'd say tobacco smokers in Belmont will soon know the anxiety felt by pot smokers, except that marijuana use is exempt from the city's ban, as long as it's "for medical purposes."

A PDF of the staff report on Belmont's smoking ban, including the latest text and an earlier version, is available here.