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Mill Valley Gets an F in Anti-Smoking Study for Third Straight Year

One year after city officials said they were working on a comprehensive health policy, city's tobacco control laws receive low score from the American Lung Association.

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.”

skycat January 23, 2012 at 03:56 PM
I would consider getting an "F" from the Lung Assoc. a badge of honor. I have no respect for a movement that tries to terrify people over the dangers of secondhand smoke leaking into their rooms from cracks in walls.
denise January 23, 2012 at 09:14 PM
Skycat, listen up: Secondhand smoke causes cancer. Secondhand smoke is classified as a “known human carcinogen” (cancer-causing agent) by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US National Toxicology Program, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer , a branch of the World Health Organization. "Tobacco smoke can seep from various openings in a multi-unit dwelling, including electrical outlets, plumbing, duct work, ceiling light fixtures, cracks in walls, floors or doors and through common areas, such as hallways. Some units may share ventilation or heating systems, which can further spread the smoke throughout a building."
skycat January 24, 2012 at 04:29 AM
Denise: If advocates are going to push for smoking bans that can result in punishment by the legal system, I think we have a right to know what harm the ban is preventing. Saying that "secondhand smoke causes cancer" as a basis for a mandate is worthless without specifying the level or the likelihood of any harm being done. The current research for the SHS death toll was largely based on people who were living or working with smokers for years, even decades, not someone living in the next apartment. Even then, the effects were so weak researchers had to combine studies (some say cherry picked) and loosen the standards of proof in order to portray SHS as being sufficiently hazardous. If someone wants to punish offenders for letting SHS seep through a keyhole, they should have some basis for it, and they should provide the research instead of trying to appropriate someone else's research based on higher levels of exposure. Even if SHS were eliminated, the death toll from radon (both indoor and outdoor) and air pollution will still exist, so promoting SHS-free air as healthy shows a willingness by smoking ban advocates mislead. I stand by my original posting above.
Citizen January 24, 2012 at 05:38 PM
Here's a link: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Tobacco/ETS "Inhaling secondhand smoke causes lung cancer in nonsmoking adults (4, 5). Approximately 3,000 lung cancer deaths occur each year among adult nonsmokers in the United States as a result of exposure to secondhand smoke (2). The U.S. Surgeon General estimates that living with a smoker increases a nonsmoker’s chances of developing lung cancer by 20 to 30 percent (4)." The risk to someone living in an apartment adjacent to a smoker may be low, but it is an avoidable risk. Just because there are non-avoidable risks doesn't mean we shouldn't try to mitigate known ones. Clean air = healthier air.
skycat January 25, 2012 at 03:57 AM
Citizen: You say, "The risk to someone living in an apartment adjacent to a smoker may be low, but it is an avoidable risk", yet you offer no evidence as to what that risk is. I think we need more than that to justify legal action against a so-called offender. We accept avoidable risks all the time. We live and raise children in areas with known high radon (a known carcinogen) levels. We even build new homes in such places. We burn Christmas and landscape lighting that increase the risk of death from pollution given off by generating plants. Many polluting and potentially fatal car trips are avoidable with proper planning. All these things involve avoidable risks, but without a multimillion-dollar effort to create fear over them, as is the case with secondhand smoke, no one is punished. For all the talk about how scientific and evidence based their judgments are, smoking ban activists appear willing to promote mandates based on little more than imagination, and punish those who don't adhere. That doesn't seem like a sound foundation for convincing smokers to trust their advice.
denise January 25, 2012 at 08:09 AM
Skycat: The "avoidable risk" is CANCER. We need to eradicate as many carcinogenic risks as we can, just because those risks still exist in many situations doesn't justify them or make abolishing 2nd hand smoke in adjacent apartments wrong. What exactly are you asking for? There is PROOF that this is a cancer risk!
Amyland January 25, 2012 at 03:55 PM
I've enjoyed reading this dialogue. I like the commitment to using the word "punish" above, and I like individuals having their own rights. I dislike the reference to the American Lung Association as a movement, because fear tactics aside, they are an educating body committed to a quality of life issue. I am a 20-year health and fitness professional. My job is to help people make healthy lifestyle change. Although I am staunchly anti-tobacco I do see how our city has made this a low priority (not justifying it.) When it comes to avoidable risk, we can't always use logic in our arguments. People choose to overeat and become obese, thereby greatly increasing their risk of heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. People are completely sedentary, which is the last thing a human body needs to function optimally, yet many choose to do so even if they aren't limited by physical considerations. I empathize with those suffering from lung cancer AND the tobacco addicts. . .and it would seem it's time to update the city's smoking ordinances.
denise January 25, 2012 at 07:44 PM
Amyland: I want individuals to have rights too, just not the right to ruin the life quality of those around them. We all need to breathe and neither our neighbors, car manufacturers or manufacturing businesses should have the right to destroy the quality of our air. I agree it is time to update smoking ordinances.
skycat January 26, 2012 at 02:31 AM
The American Lung Association was one the founders of the Pennsylvania Alliance to Control Tobacco (PACT). Here is just one example of how "an educating body" educates the public. A 2007 press release for a PACT commissioned study was headlined "1771 NONSMOKING PENNSYLVANIA CASINO EMPLOYEES WILL DIE FROM SECONDHAND-SMOKE ILLNESSES, NEW STUDY SAYS". This release was broadly disseminated on the Internet. About three days later, a new release was issued, except "1771" was replaced by "300" to correspond to the newly revised research paper. The revised release appeared only at the PACT site itself. A blunder of this magnitude doesn't say much for the reliability of smoking ban research. It also resulted in wrong information dominating the Internet to this day. Also, the revised press release (as well as the paper itself) kept quiet about the erroneous version, which seems contrary to scientific standard of disclosing errors. Of the "1771" version’s initial release Internet sites, I don't know of a single one that told of the revision. --cont'd
skycat January 26, 2012 at 02:32 AM
Today, a Google search for: 300 Casino Employees in PA Will Die, shows 3 hits in the first 25 results, with nothing beyond the PACT site. Changing the 300 to 1771 results in 9 hits at various sites for press releases, links or commentary. I have seen articles written after both releases as if there never was a corrected version. In conclusion, for all the lip service smoking ban advocates give to science, this behavior shows a willingness by PACT/ALA to permit self-serving misinformation. Re: punish. An outdoor smoking ban proposal for Cape May, NJ provided for up to 90 days in jail. I don’t know if it covered carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons resulting from avoidable grilling...

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