WALNUT CREEK -- The City Council has asked staff to study a prospective ordinance imposing restrictions on smoking downtown and in apartment buildings and other multifamily homes, along with other ways to cut second-hand smoke exposure dramatically.

In a recent statewide report, Walnut Creek received an "F" grade for its overall tobacco control from the American Lung Association. The city has received this grade since 2009 from that group, which uses three main grading criteria -- smoke-free outdoor air, smoke-free housing and reducing sales of tobacco products. By comparison, Martinez and Pleasant Hill received "B" grades in the lung association's 2013 report. City staff made recommendations to the council that, if enacted, could possibly raise their grade to a "C."

A person stops to smoke a cigarette on Friday, October 13, 2006 in Walnut Creek, Calif. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Contra Costa Times)
A person stops to smoke a cigarette on Friday, October 13, 2006 in Walnut Creek, Calif. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Contra Costa Times)

Residents told the council they feel powerless to convince their neighbors to stop smoking close enough to their apartment for the smoke to invade their living space. With no local ordinances on the books, they said they have no recourse despite experiencing negative health effects such as asthma. They urged the council to go further and shoot for an "A."

Local resident Dr. Dri Wang said her neighbor has refused to stop smoking so close to her apartment.

"When I complained to my landlord she said she has no legal right to stand because the city has no second hand smoking ordinance in place," Wang told the council last week.

Out of about 32,000 housing units, almost 50 percent are part of multifamily units. And the city has no restrictions on smoking in multifamily units.

"Most complaints in Walnut Creek about second-hand smoke come from residents in multifamily housing," said Meyer.

Wang, a clinical psychiatric pharmacist and Walnut Creek resident, said she might have to move if a comprehensive ordinance is not passed.

"Ironically part of my job is to help people quit." said Wang. "I feel like I can't even help myself from getting exposure to second-hand smoke. I have a downstairs neighbor who chain smokes hours on end. If he smokes on his balcony, my living area smells like I'm the one who's smoking in my living room."

In the report to the council, city staff recommended restricting smoking at public events to designated smoking areas, and prohibiting smoking at bus stops, ATMs and ticket lines, and within 200 feet of gathering spots including playgrounds and sports fields. They did not recommend banning smoking downtown,or pursuing smoking restrictions in multifamily units. They did, however, recommend prohibiting smoking in all indoor and outdoor common areas, balconies and patios.

Councilman Bob Simmons said that if the council enacted the recommended restrictions, the city's "F" grade may only increase to only a "D+."

"It strikes me that we're spending a lot of energy and the overall grade is not going up very much," Simmons said.

Mayor Pro Tem Kristina Lawson asked Sandra Meyer, Walnut Creek's community development director, why the staff hasn't recommended pursuing more dramatic restrictions. She also said she believes businesses would support a smoking ban downtown.

"The businesses are finding that all they are doing on Saturday, Sunday and Monday morning is picking up cigarette butts," Lawson said.

Meyer said city staff is hesitant to do too much too fast.

"We think that at this point, we have no local restrictions in the city, and it's kind of going from zero to 100 miles an hour in 10 seconds," said Meyer.

Walnut Creek already has an ordinance requiring retailers obtain a license from the county health department to sell tobacco, but the lung association recommends a renewed effort to enforce that licensing.