EL CERRITO -- A group of about a dozen residents received an opportunity June 5 to speak out about a proposed smoking ordinance that could go so far as to ban lighting up anywhere within the city limits except in a single-family home or a car.
The consensus from the group was that the City Council should be at least that restrictive, the direction it appeared to be moving when it evaluated a staff report on the issue May 20.
Assistant City Manager Karen Pinkos said she and her staff have identified smoking as a problem in parks and open space, commercial areas, multifamily housing and public sidewalks.
Cigarettes can start wildfires, create litter on sidewalks and exacerbate health problems for residents of apartment and condominium buildings when smoke migrates into units occupied by nonsmokers.
Smoking-related litter will be a key issue in any ordinance, Pinkos said.
Thousands of discarded cigarette butts have been collected on San Pablo Avenue and other streets in the past by volunteers, including during Earth Day observances each April.
Discarded butts often end up in storm drains along with other garbage from streets and gutters. The problem could eventually become a crisis since El Cerrito is required by water quality regulators to reduce the amount of litter flowing off its streets into San Francisco Bay to zero by 2022.
San Pablo Avenue resident Nick Arzio raised the issue of how to enforce a ban on sidewalk smoking.
The city can't afford to hire an enforcement officer to patrol the streets looking for violators, Pinkos said.
But she noted that police officers and code enforcement officers currently have the power to write tickets if they see people discarding cigarette butts and could cite smokers who violate a smoking ban.
Arzio suggested levying a heavy fine on people caught discarding butts, which he said would serve as a deterrent.
Although El Cerrito presently has no rules in place about smoking in multifamily housing, the council is leaning toward banning it in all new units and phasing it in for existing units when tenants sign new leases or after one year, whichever comes first, Pinkos said.
Walnut Creek has a hotline that residents can use to report smoking violations in apartment buildings, a concept that El Cerrito could adopt, she said.
El Cerrito has about 500 new apartments and condominiums under construction or in the planning stages, most of them on or near San Pablo Avenue.
Other speakers raised the issue of smoking on construction sites and in backyards, which affect residents of adjacent single-family homes.
Pinkos said the City Council could solve the problem on construction sites by instituting a specific ban on smoking at outdoor workplaces.
The city is also considering proposals to ban cigarette sales within 1,000 feet of schools and raise the minimum age to purchase cigarettes from 18 to 21.
Denice Dennis of the Contra Costa County Tobacco Prevention Project said ordinances banning and restricting smoking have the concurrent positive effect of reducing smoking overall.
"It lowers the smoking rate if you have smoke-free policies that are restrictive and make smoking more expensive," Dennis said.
The council plans to take up a final version of a smoking ordinance in September or possibly sooner, Pinkos said.