Balancing the rights of smokers with those affected by secondhand smoke is the challenge for the Foster City Council as it seeks changes to its current policy of asking people not to light up in city parks to the possibility of a more stringent ordinance of not allowing it in public or in homes that share walls.
The City Council will hold a study session Monday to discuss the potential benefits of updating its 18-year-old ordinance and is asking the public to provide input. The council will be presented with research about smoking and a range of options that include banning smoking in parks, multi-family residential complexes, classifying electronic cigarettes as tobacco products and eliminating smoking in outdoor areas that could cause one restaurant to close its doors.
The driving factor behind this ordinance is to protect those who don’t want to be exposed to secondhand smoke, said Assistant City Manager Steve Toler.
“The council is going to have to make some decisions in terms of … limiting the harmful effects of secondhand smoke. If people were making the decision to smoke themselves they have the right to do that. But the impact it can have on others is something we’re very concerned about,” Toler said.
Councilman Herb Perez agrees and said although some may view parts of the proposed amendments as a slight against an individual’s right to smoke, the real issue is providing people with the right to not be affected by secondhand smoke.
“For me, it’s a question of health and safety. For others, it’s a question of personal liberty. I don’t believe, and the state concurs, there’s any personal right to smoke,” Perez said.
The city currently prohibits smoking within 25 feet of a building or entryway and issued a no-smoking resolution in parks and at city-sponsored events. However, as the outdoor regulation is just a policy, it doesn’t carry as much weight as an enforceable ordinance would, Toler said.
Councilman Steve Okamoto worked for the American Cancer Society and introduced the proposed resolution during his tenure on the Parks and Recreation Commission.
“I want to make those resolutions have a little more authority. Because as a resolution you can only ask for cooperation,” Okamoto said. “As an ordinance, the city has a bit more authority to control it.”
Mayor Charles Bronitsky agrees if the city owns it, people shouldn’t be able to smoke there. However, there are certain places he worries the city could overstep its bounds.
During the first Sept. 9 study session on the topic, the council requested staff research other city regulations and options to consider including investigating the plausibility of restricting smoking in apartment buildings, according to a staff report.
“A lot of this is going to depend on how the public or council decides to define public space or outdoor spaces,” Toler said.
One amendment being considered is to outlaw smoking in apartments, potentially both indoors and outdoor common spaces. Although most councilmembers agree their intent is to protect the public from unwanted exposure to secondhand smoke, extending the law into peoples’ homes is a dicey subject.
“I’m not in favor of that. I think it’s an invasion into privacy, where the government ought not to go,” Bronitsky said.
Okamoto said he agrees that the argument for upholding personal privacy is significant, but he wants to protect people who don’t have the choice to be smoke-free in their own homes.
“I’m strongly in favor of personal space and privacy. But if smoke affects somebody who doesn’t want that smoke, then I think we have the need to step in,” Okamoto said. “The bottom line is we’re not trying to prevent people from smoking, the issue is the secondhand smoke affecting the health of our residents.”
Perez agrees it’s a complex topic and said he looks forward to hearing more dialogue about it. But his priority is being able to provide Foster City residents with the choice to not be exposed to secondhand smoke, Perez said.
Waterfront Pizza is a Mediterranean restaurant and hookah lounge that’s kept in accordance with the law since it moved to Foster City in 1989. Owner Isam Halteh said previously its livelihood relies on the ability to serve hookah.
Although the city wants to deter smoking in public, it doesn’t want to put this longstanding establishment out of business, Perez said.
“Most recently they spent upwards of $700,000 to renovate and expand their business. In part [smoking hookah] is cultural and in part it’s in their business model. So I believe they should have a time and place and an exemption or grandfather clause,” Perez said.
If it agrees to restrictions and because the public has a choice as to whether they want to patronize the restaurant, Perez said he would be fine with making the restaurant the exception.
Councilman Art Kiesel said he doesn’t want to squeeze the restaurant out of Foster City, but Waterfront Pizza should start phasing hookah out of its practices.
“It’s one of those controversial things and I sympathize with the restaurant,” Kiesel said. “But where do you draw the line on relinquishing safety concerns?”
Part of the reason he became opposed to allowing for the continuance of hookah was after asking staff to compile more research about hookah and electronic cigarette smoke, Kiesel said.
“I’m informed that hookah pipes have the same carcinogens, so now that’s called a cigarette or a cigar in my terms. If e-cigarettes are clean, them I’m fine. But if they’re not and the [Food and Drug Administration] classifies them as a tobacco product, then I would be supportive of banning them,” Kiesel said.
Because electronic cigarettes are a nicotine product, Perez said he wants them to be regulated in the same manner as traditional cigarettes.
The City Council has a range of things from which to choose and the public is encouraged to attend and provide input Monday, Toler said. No formal decisions will be made Monday but staff is asking for council direction. If the council decides to go in a fairly straightforward direction, staff could return with an ordinance for hearing as early as March 17, Toler said. Regardless of how the council moves, staff would draft the amended ordinance, return it for public hearing and a second reading before it could pass. Assuming everything goes smoothly, the earliest any ordinance could go into effect would be June, Toler said.
“We understand that [the city has] the right to ban smoking if it so chooses from a legal perspective. And that could extend into residential areas,” Toler said. “It could extend into private property as well as public property. And typically those laws are put in place because of public health and safety and frankly, that would have to be the premise behind it.”
The Amendments to Smoking Ordinance Study Session will be held 6:30 p.m. tonight, Feb. 24 at City Hall, 620 Foster City Blvd.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106