Article President’s Message Alex Padilla

California’s Cities Lead the Way in Adopting Smoke-Free Policies

In January, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) declared cigarette smoke a toxic pollutant.With this announcement, California continues to lead the way in honestly assessing the threat of secondhand smoke. It also complements ongoing efforts by California cities to regulate smoking and tobacco use.

In the late 1980s, Californians voted for Proposition 99, which increased the sales tax on tobacco and dedicated the resulting revenue to a variety of purposes, including public health programs and public education (with an advertising component) about the dangers of smoking. In the early and mid-1990s, many cities banned smoking in most workplaces and bars. This action at the local level paved the way for the 1994 enactment of AB 13, authored by then-Assembly Member Terry Friedman. The first legislation of its type in the nation, AB 13 banned smoking in virtually all enclosed places of employment in California. The League and its member cities were among those supporting its passage.

These and other tobacco initiatives have had a dramatic effect. According to the California Department of Health Services, from 1988–2002, California’s lung cancer rates decreased four times faster than those in the rest of the country. Nevertheless, tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, killing more than 44,000 Californians each year. Clearly, there is much more to be done if we are to protect the public — particularly children — from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke.

California Cities Lead the Way

These state-level policy changes have been critically important steps in changing public perceptions about smoking. But it is California’s cities that are breaking new ground and leading the way in regulating access to tobacco products and exposure to secondhand smoke. It is often at the city level where the greatest progress is possible because big tobacco firms have less influence over local public policy decisions.

For example, the City of Calabasas recently approved a comprehensive secondhand smoke control ordinance that goes beyond the current state law and prohibits smoking in all public places where people can be exposed to secondhand smoke. These include indoorand outdoor businesses, hotels, parks, apartment common areas, restaurants and bars, and places where people can congregate or meet. This new ordinance is considered the most comprehensive in the country. But Calabasas isn’t the only California city demonstrating leadership.

Dozens of California’s beach communities have followed the lead of Solana Beach, which in 2003 became the first city in the continental United States to ban smoking at the beach. Huntington Beach, Carpinteria, Laguna Beach, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz and many others have also followed suit.

Living in Smoke-Free Environments

Another area of growing concern is smoke-free housing. People recognize that tobacco smoke finds its way into vents, under doors and through windows. It’s often difficult to avoid secondhand smoke when living in an apartment building or condominium, particularly in common areas such as lobbies, hallways, pool areas and breezeways. Currently, 91 California cities from Arcata to Calexico have established smoke-free ordinances for common areas of multi-unit dwellings. And there is a growing movement to provide incentives for housing developments that are either entirely smoke-free or provide units for non-smokers. Just as we have smoke-free options at hotels, families who need to rent should have the option of a smoke-free housing unit.

Protecting Our Children

Perhaps the most important tobacco control issue in our cities is tobacco sales to minors. Seventy-four percent of current smokers in California started before they were 18 years old. Roughly one-third of all youth smokers will die prematurely fromdiseases caused by smoking. The annual costs attributed to smoking in Los Angeles include $2.3 billion in direct health care costs and $2 billion in lost productivity.

Selling tobacco to minors has been illegal in California for more than 100 years. Unfortunately, lack of enforcement has resulted in continued widespread illegal sales to young people. In Los Angeles, there are approximately 5,200 retailers who sell tobacco — and those are the ones we know about because they are required to register with the city.

Many retailers are violating the law and selling tobacco products to children in our neighborhoods due to ignorance or greed. A recent survey of Los Angeles tobacco retailers found that 40 percent are selling tobacco to minors. That number grows to 44.3 percent for retailers within 1,000 feet of a school. Two years ago, California enacted legislation, supported by the League, to crack down on the sale of counterfeit cigarettes and to license tobacco retailers. This legislation was based in part on retail licensing ordinances al- ready adopted by cities and counties. 

Meeting Enforcement Challenges

Enforcement is the most effective way to stop tobacco sales to minors. If retailers believe there is a possibility that a teenager attempting to buy tobacco is part of a sting operation, they may think twice about selling to minors. Until recently, the City of Los Angeles was struggling with a lack of resources that prevented officials from conducting an effective number of sting operations. The problem was further complicated by the fact that enforcement usually involves an expensive contract with the state Department of Health Services, whose officers conduct the sting operations.

To pay for the sting operations and follow up on cases where retailers are in violation, the city established a Tobacco Retailers Permit Fee. Revenue from the permit fee is enabling us to quadruple enforcement efforts over the next two years. The funds are exclusively dedicated to enforcing tobacco sales laws. In Los Angeles, the fee was phased in with retailers paying $208 the first year and $274 the second year.

Thirty-four cities and counties throughout California have established tobacco retailers permit or license fees to fund enforcement. A recent survey conducted by Contra Costa County demonstrated that the rate of illegal tobacco sales dropped from 37 percent to 2 percent after the local licensing law was adopted. The fee for the permit/license varies from city to city. Contra Costa County charges $160 for its permits and the City of Sacramento charges $300 for its annual license/permit fee, while the fee in San Francisco is $175.

Forty-two years ago, the surgeon general released the first report linking smoking and lung cancer. In January, CARB declared cigarette smoke a toxic pollutant. These findings are based on scientific evidence and, over the years, have been taken to heart by city leaders throughout our state. California’s cities continue leading the effort to create healthier smoke-free communities, beaches and housing and to protect the public and our children from tobacco’s adverse — and often fatal — health effects. 

This article appears in the June 2006 issue of Western City
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