Monday, January 28, 2008

IN MY VIEW: Calabasas Apartment Smoking Ordinance Reveals Lack of Public Health Principles and Loss of Integrity in Tobacco Control

Consider this scenario:

A landlord in Calabasas owns a multi-unit rental property consisting of 4 buildings with 8 units per building. He wishes to retain the maximum allowable number of smoking units so that he does not jeopardize his ability to rent these units.

According to the new law in Calabasas, he can designate a maximum of 20% of his 32 rental units, or 6 units, as smoking units. Furthermore, all 6 smoking units have to be in the same building.

Thus, the landlord has no choice but to designate 6 of the 8 units in one if his buildings as smoking units. This means that the poor nonsmokers who live in the other 2 units in that building are going to be completely surrounded by apartments in which smoking takes place.

What may not have been a problem originally is now certain to be a problem. There are going to be nonsmoking tenants who most likely are going to face a problem with secondhand smoke exposure in their homes.

This thanks to a City Council which is trying to present itself as being a leader in the movement to protect people from the extreme hazards of secondhand smoke. This from a City Council which apparently views secondhand smoke as such a hazard that it outlawed smoking everywhere outside - including parks, parking lots, streets, sidewalks, and alleyways - unless a smoker can ensure that no nonsmoker will come within 25 feet, even transiently.

To make matters much worse, the new ordinance makes it virtually impossible for nonsmokers whose health is being adversely affected by secondhand smoke attributable to their neighbors' smoking to have any recourse. Prior to the ordinance, a nonsmoker who was suffering due to tobacco smoke exposure could complain to the landlord and demand an accommodation to mitigate the exposure in some way. Now, the tenant really has no standing upon which to demand an accommodation, as long as the landlord is in full compliance with the law.

But full compliance with the law does nothing to ensure protection of nonsmoking tenants. In fact, as I have described above, it actually ensures that the problem will be much worse for many Calabasas residents.

If the principle of public health protection actually meant anything, then why in the world would the City Council have grandfathered in existing smoking units? Does secondhand smoke somehow know the difference between an existing smoking resident and a future smoking resident? Will the smoke of existing residents somehow know to stop before it enters the apartment of a nonsmoker? Is the City Council really saying that existing exposure of nonsmokers is acceptable, but that they just do not want to create "new" exposure?

The Rest of the Story

What I honestly see here is a City Council policy that has completely lost regard for public health principles and has instead wandered into the realm of a purely political maneuver. The policy appears designed to make it look like the Council is addressing a serious problem, when the truth is that the policy not only makes no sense and is unduly intrusive into the autonomy of landlords, but it also institutionalizes the very problem that it pretends to solve.

But what is most troubling to me is not the fact that these policy makers are acting purely like politicians. After all, they are politicians.

What troubles me is that public health groups appear to be supporting this policy. Groups like Smokefree Pennsylvania have publicly defended the policy and to the best of my knowledge, no anti-smoking group has yet to publicly criticize the policy.

And you know what? I don't think any anti-smoking group will publicly criticize this policy. As I have learned, it is sacrosanct for a tobacco control group or advocate to criticize a secondhand smoke statement or policy. In this case, anti-smoking groups are going to be loathe to take any action that in any way criticizes a City Council that in their minds is leading the way to the next frontier in secondhand smoke regulation - banning smoking virtually everywhere.

Of course, the irony is that Calabasas is setting a terrible example by instituting policies that are largely window dressing. They look good in the papers, but when it comes down to it, they do little to protect people who need it the most and they actually institutionalize rather than prevent, significant secondhand smoke exposure.

As I argued previously, Calabasas may be protecting nonsmokers from secondhand smoke exposure in remote areas of parking lots, but they are not ensuring protection for smokers in the crowded (and lucrative) Calabasas Commons shopping area.

Calabasas is an example not of what should be a trend-setter in smoke-free policies, but of what should be shunned. It is an example of politics winning out over public health. It is an example of talking the talk, but not being willing to walk the walk.

I believe that there must be a solid justification for the government to intervene into the way in which landlords operate their businesses. If you are going to intrude to this degree, setting up a quota system telling landlords how they must allocate the space in their apartment buildings, then you better have a very good public health justification for doing so. In this case, there is no public health justification. If anything, the ordinance creates a problem where one may not have existed. At very least, it takes a problem and makes it much, much worse.

There is a better way. For one thing, if Calabasas were serious about tackling the problem of secondhand smoke in rental units, it could simply have enacted an ordinance which makes it a nuisance condition when secondhand smoke from someone else's apartment enters your apartment and causes significant acute health impairment. This would give nonsmoking tenants the power they need to force landlords to address the problem. Landlords could be required to make reasonable accommodations for nonsmoking tenants whose health is significantly affected by tobacco smoke and this could be done on a case-by-case basis. This is probably the most efficient way of tackling this problem.

Alternatively, if the City Council is so serious about the extreme hazards of secondhand smoke, then why didn't it simply ban smoking in apartments where there is the possibility of tobacco smoke entering a nearby rental unit? It's not clear to me whether such a sweeping approach is necessary, as opposed to the case-by-case approach I outline above, but at least it would have represented the ability to stick to some sort of public health principles.

The Calabasas story is an excellent illustration of why I am so frustrated by the lack of integrity in tobacco control that I observe today. There is simply too much politics nowadays and not enough sticking to principle. That may be OK for politicians, but I don't view it as being OK for groups that are entrusted with (or have entrusted themselves with) the protection of the public's health.

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