Ardian Totolaku, an unemployed restaurant worker, believes in his God-given right to smoke cigarettes. He likes to smoke while he is hanging out on the streets of downtown San Rafael and in the comfort of his three-bedroom condo on a tree-lined street not far from Highway 101.
Soon, however, the 44-year-old Albanian immigrant might be prohibited from smoking in either place. The San Rafael City Council will decide today whether to ban smoking in more than 40 percent of the city’s private residences or while sitting or standing on any sidewalk downtown.
“It's not right,” Totolaku said as he lingered outside the Fourth Street Starbucks on a recent afternoon. He took a last drag from his cigarette and added: “The government is going too far. Humans die because the Lord decides when it is time to go, not because of smoking.”
But the City Council is not waiting for divine intervention. The proposed ordinance would prohibit smoking tobacco or marijuana in any multi-family residential unit, condominium or apartment – more than 10,000 of the city’s 24,000 dwellings.
In addition to the downtown ban, the measure would restrict smoking near any business or multi-family residence. It also would prohibit smoking at public events, playgrounds and outdoor dining areas.
The proposed ban, one of the toughest in the state, is similar to restrictions adopted by Sonoma County and the cities of Belmont and Richmond.
Supporters of the San Rafael measure say it would protect bystanders from the health hazards associated with secondhand smoke, a known carcinogen that can seep through ventilation ducts, doorways and open windows in residential units with shared walls.
“The person that is being subjected to the smokers’ behavior has rights as well,” said Mayor Gary Phillips, a supporter of the measure. “Particularly when you take into account the health factors, we feel it is best to weigh in on the side of the person who is being subjected to the smoke.”
San Rafael, in eastern Marin County roughly 15 miles north of San Francisco, is one of California’s wealthier cities, with a median household income of $71,339, according to its website. San Rafael is a commuter city in the heart of Marin County that is home to more than 57,000 people. A statewide survey released in 2009 showed that only 7.5 percent of Marin County residents smoked, the lowest rate in the state.
If passed, the ban would require a final vote Oct. 15 before going into effect in mid-November. The ordinance would apply to all tobacco, marijuana and hookah smokers – even users of medical marijuana who have a doctor’s prescription.
Violators could face fines ranging from $100 to $500, depending on the number of times they have been cited.
The proposal has set the stage for a fierce fight over how far the government should go in regulating people’s private lives. City officials say they have received roughly 30 emails and calls from residents who say the ban would leave smokers with few places to go.
Smokers in downtown San Rafael last week said the government should butt out.
Standing on a curb in San Rafael, Chris Gatty, a human resources manager from Fairfax, complained between puffs on his cigarette that the government is unfairly targeting smokers who stand still – walking while smoking still would be permitted.
“While we're at it, cleaning up the streets, we should get rid of the homeless, too,” said Gatty, 42, gesturing toward a group of disheveled men on a busy corner. “Smokers are being unfairly targeted by the government. If I lived here in a condo, I’d move.”
But Jennifer Harper – Gatty’s friend and a nonsmoker – said she was “all for the police state.”
Harper said she had tried unsuccessfully to persuade Gatty to quit smoking. And as a hairdresser working downtown, Harper said she had to close the door of the salon from time to time to keep secondhand smoke at bay.
“I'm all for it,” Harper said of the ban.
As he took a cigarette break on the sidewalk, Ben Arlington, a San Francisco resident who runs ticketing operations for concerts, wondered where he would smoke if the ban were approved.
“I suppose I would stand in the street,” said Arlington, 34, gazing at the traffic. “I think that would be problematic for me, though. I value my limbs.”
This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a nonprofit, investigative news sources in the Bay Area and a part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.