Friday, February 6, 2009

Smoking ban hits home, truly

Smoking Ban Hits Home. Truly.

By Jesse McKinley
January 26, 2009

Belmont, Calif. — During her 50 years of smoking, Edith Frederickson says, she has lit up in restaurants and bars, airplanes and trains, and indoors and out, all as part of a two-pack-a-day habit that she regrets not a bit. But as of two weeks ago, Ms. Frederickson can no longer smoke in the one place she loves the most: her home.

Ms. Frederickson lives in an apartment in Belmont, Calif., a quiet Silicon Valley city that is now home to perhaps the nation’s strictest antismoking law, effectively outlawing lighting up in all apartment buildings.

“I’m absolutely outraged,” said Ms. Frederickson, 72, pulling on a Winston as she sat on a concrete slab outside her single-room apartment. “They’re telling you how to live and what to do, and they’re doing it right here in America.”

Edith Frederickson in a visit to her building’s smoking area.

And that the ban should have originated in her very building — a sleepy government-subsidized retirement complex called Bonnie Brae Terrace — is even more galling. Indeed, according to city officials, a driving force behind the passage of the law was a group of retirees from the complex who lobbied the city to stop secondhand smoke from drifting into their apartments from the neighbors’ places.

“They took it upon themselves to do something about it,” said Valerie Harnish, the city’s information services manager. “And they did.”

Public health advocates are closely watching to see what happens with Belmont, seeing it as a new front in their national battle against tobacco, one that seeks to place limits on smoking in buildings where tenants share walls, ceilings and — by their logic — air. Not surprisingly, habitually health-conscious California has been ahead of the curve on the issue, with several other cities passing bans on smoking in most units in privately owned apartment buildings, but none has gone as far as Belmont, which prohibits smoking in any apartment that shares a floor or ceiling with another, including condominiums.

“I think Belmont broke through this invisible barrier in the sense that it addressed drifting smoke in housing as a public health issue,” said Serena Chen, the regional director of policy and tobacco programs for the American Lung Association of California. “They simply said that secondhand smoke is no less dangerous when it’s in your bedroom than in your workplace.”

At a local level, the debate over the law has divided the residents of the Bonnie Brae into two camps, with the likes of Ms. Frederickson, a hardy German émigré, on one side, and Ray Goodrich, a slim 84-year-old with a pulmonary disease and a lifelong allergy problem, on the other.

Ray Goodrich helped lead a successful campaign to ban
smoking in many apartment units.

And, as with all combatants, there is a mix of respect and animosity.

“She is one tough old woman,” Mr. Goodrich said.

Ms. Frederickson is less loving.

“I would not acknowledge that man for anything in the world,” she said. “He started this as a vendetta against other residents.”

A soft-spoken North Carolinian who grew up playing in tobacco warehouses as a child, Mr. Goodrich hardly seems the vendetta type, but he did say he noticed smoke drifting in from neighbors’ rooms soon after he moved into Bonnie Brae in 1998.

“It gave me an instant headache, kind of like an iron band around the head,” Mr. Goodrich said. “I could be sitting and have the air filters going, which eliminated the visible smoke, but the smoke was still there.”

He finally decided he had had enough after a fire broke out in a smoker’s room in the complex in 2003, a blaze that was fed by the tenant’s oxygen tank.

“I came around the corner, and there was just a giant puff of black smoke, and I knew I wasn’t going to last five seconds in that,” Mr. Goodrich said. “It was like Dante’s inferno up there.”

Determined to root out smokers, Mr. Goodrich began a letter-writing campaign, petitioning everyone from local officials to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which helps finance the privately managed Bonnie Brae, which serves low- and middle-income seniors.

“We need your help,” read one of Mr. Goodrich’s letters in July 2006. “A barking dog disturbs our sleep but will not kill us. Secondhand smoke is killing us.”

That letter caught the attention of several members of the Belmont City Council, including Dave Warden, a Belmont native and software consultant who served on the council until 2007. Mr. Warden said council members were particularly moved when Mr. Goodrich followed up with repeated visits to council meetings, often joined by other Bonnie Brae tenants — using walkers, wheelchairs and oxygen tanks — and telling harrowing tales of life surrounded by secondhand smoke.

“I think that they didn’t have a grand strategy, I think they just wanted some change, and they didn’t know how to get it,” he said. “And once it got discussed seriously, they got very encouraged.”

But as word spread, council members also started to receive complaints — including threatening e-mail messages — implying that Belmont, about 20 miles south of the liberal climes of San Francisco, had become a “nanny state.” Mr. Goodrich was also feeling the hate, he said, getting “cold stares and dead silence” from smokers at the complex.

“The worst place you can be is between an addict and their fix,” he said. It did not help, he said, that most of the smokers were younger — “they don’t live as long,” he said — and more vocal.

But finally, after more than a year of deliberation, the Council passed the law in October 2007, barring smoking anywhere in the city of about 25,000 except in detached homes and yards, streets and some sidewalks, and designated smoking areas outside.

The law took effect on Jan. 9, after a 14-month grace period that allowed apartment buildings time to comply with the new rules — like rewriting lease agreements to ban smoking — and tenants who objected to the changes to move. The law brings with it the threat of $100 fines, though city officials say no penalties have been levied yet.

Mr. Goodrich says his days in politics are over.

“I’m working on my second retirement,” he said. “The smoking stuff was my last hurrah.”

He says he suspects that some residents still smoke secretly late at night, while others crowd the small outdoor areas where smoking is still allowed.

Ms. Frederickson is one of those, at least for the time being; after all, she says, she is looking to move out of Belmont if she can find something cheap enough.

Until then, however, she seems defiant, despite feeling like a criminal in Belmont.

“And I’m going to keep being a criminal, let me tell you that,” she said.

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