Like many people in this country these days, Mill Valley resident Helen Katz isn’t happy with her elected officials. But while most disgruntled citizens are directing their vitriol at federal lawmakers in Washington, D.C., Katz is more focused on those lawmakers in her own backyard.
Katz, a lung cancer survivor in her mid-60s who lives in a multi-unit building, said she was appalled to find out that her hometown received an F for the in the annual State of Tobacco Control Report, the American Lung Association analysis of tobacco control laws across the country. Those laws generally focus on minimizing people’s exposure to secondhand smoke. The city of Mill Valley last updated its smoking ordinances in 1992.
“I’d like to see intelligence,” said Katz, who is very sensitive to secondhand smoke and struggled for years with a neighbor whose boyfriend smoked. “We are living in one of the richest and best educated counties in the country and I would like to see our leaders reflect our population. I would like to think that they are a cut above Washington.”
In October 2010, the . But those efforts stalled because of concerns about the complexities of regulating multi-unit buildings.
Mayor Garry Lion said that while there is support on the council for local laws dealing with smoking in public places like or in lines for places like ATMs. But that issue was placed on the backburner in 2011 as City Hall focused on issues such as the and the to pay for the city’s decades-old sewer infrastructure.
“The general feeling of councilmembers was that this wasn’t a hot item so we didn’t address it immediately,” Lion said. “But I am wholeheartedly in favor of it and I’ll be pushing for it.”
Katz, a former smoker herself who said she now gets headaches when she’s exposed to secondhand smoke, said “divine intervention” rescued her when local laws could not help. She declined to name the complex for this story but said it is technically a no-smoking complex, with renters verbally agreeing not to smoke.
Those agreements weren’t really enforced, she said, particularly because many elderly tenants had been there for decades and the no-smoking agreement didn’t apply to those not on the lease.
Without laws on the books to bolster the complex’s informal smoking ban, Katz made little headway in her efforts to get her neighbor’s boyfriend to stop smoking in the unit adjacent to hers.
“It was a big loophole and I was getting nowhere,” she said.
But in a move that Katz attributed to “divine intervention,” the couple eventually broke up, and the smoking boyfriend didn’t return. She said the owners have made strides in recent months to post No Smoking placards on each building and more strictly police smoking once long-term tenants who are smokers move out.
“That was the way they decided to handle the issue - they couldn’t have a blanket policy,” she said. “If the property owners aren’t being supported at the local level there’s only so much they can do.”
Pam Granger, the association’s tobacco programs manager for the North Bay area, said, "Both the municipality or property owners could regulate smoking on their premises, but they often don’t, either because they don’t realize they can or are afraid of pushback and want the city to support them."
Marin County was once a pioneer in California when it came to laws requiring smoke-free workplaces. But Granger said she understood that because state and county laws have made significant strides in recent years, and because smokers only make around 7 percent of the population in health-conscious Marin, local officials might feel like the problem is being addressed sufficiently.
“Sometimes I hear, ‘It’s not an issue in our town,’ and I have to say that clean and healthy air is an issue in every town, especially ones with high concentrations of kids and elderly people (like Mill Valley),” she said. “I guarantee you that the same family that lives in an apartment in Mill Valley has the same concerns as the people do in Larkspur.”
One of Mill Valley’s neighbors to the north saw the biggest improvement from 2010 to 2011, according to the report, jumping from an F to B. Larkspur matched Novato for the highest grade in the county. The two are the only cities in Marin to outlaw smoking in apartment and condominiums with shared walls like where Katz lives. The Marin County Board of Supervisors is considering a similar ordinance this year that would regulate unincorporated Marin, including Strawberry and Tam and Homestead valleys.
Mill Valley was among four cities to get an F in the study, along with Belvedere, Corte Madera and Sausalito.
But Granger said despite garnering an F for three years in a row, Mill Valley can follow the lead of Novato and Larkspur quickly if it wants to do so.
“Passing secondhand smoke laws are the single biggest thing that can be done for public health,” she said. “Mill Valley is poised for greatness - they just don’t know it yet.”