Public Comment

New: Flawed Logic – The Tobacco Industry’s Legacy

By C. Denney
Monday October 07, 2013 - 09:28:00 AM

Councilmember Jesse Arreguin is scrambling to justify voting against strong, protective secondhand smoke regulations in multi-unit housing to save thousands in Berkeley from serious toxic exposure. His logic is flawed. 

He claims that the policy rejected by the council on October 1, 2013 promoted change through “education rather than conflict” although it required each and every exposed tenant to turn individually to the courts for extremely limited fines, fines which would never assure any tenant of clean, breathable air. 

The “right of private action”, the rejected enforcement mechanism, is a right all tenants already have --- if they have lots of money, lots of time, can find a lawyer interested in taking their case, and who have a burning desire to be thoroughly hated by their neighbors. The “right of private action” is in fact the current policy, which those of us suffering from cancer know is not working in favor of our health. 

No one disputes that long-term tenants, who generally have lower rents than new tenants thanks to state-based vacancy decontrol, are less lucrative than short-term tenants, and that such a group might inspire landlords to make false charges of property rules violations. But nonsmokers are more likely to be in this category than smokers, who constitute only 10% of Alameda County residents and overwhelmingly (85%) smoke outdoors for obvious reasons. 

Councilmember Arreguin’s claims that strong smokefree housing regulations will create a “rash of evictions” is not supported by historical data, nationally or internationally. The Rent Stabilization Board, which made this same argument, admitted after a public records request it had no factual data to support it. Policy should not be based on hypothetical assumptions strangely consonant with tobacco industry propaganda. 

A “nuisance” designation may be grounds for eviction, but all tenants have to do to avoid contributing to a nuisance is smoke outside. None of them have to quit smoking, although smoking regulations often help them quit. Most smokers already live in smokefree housing by choice, and common law habitability requirements, requirements which require potable water, access to sanitary facilities, etc., presumably include breathable air. Anyone who smokes in multi-unit housing is not just smoking in their own home—they’re smoking in mine. 

Not only do studies prove that low-income tenants’ interest in protecting their own families’ health is the same as any other group, people who struggle with addiction issues, mental health issues, or who were formerly homeless also have been shown to have an equal interest in protecting their own and their families health and no more difficulty complying with smoking regulations than any other group. To argue otherwise is racist. 

Tobacco industry propaganda is powerful, and has influenced many well-intended people and policymakers. I encourage Jesse Arreguin, and anyone else tempted to water down smokefree regulations to the point of ineffectuality, to talk with health professionals about current science and the best practices before sentencing thousands of innocent people to a life of toxic exposure.