By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Even on the coldest days and nights, Alicia Orozco keeps the furnace in her Cotati condominium switched off and the windows partially open.
Orozco, 33, and her 2-year-old daughter bundle up against the chill and use space heaters for meager warmth for the sake of their health, she said.
“Living here has been nothing less than a nightmare,” said Orozco, a divorced single mother.
Her condo shares attic space with a neighbor who smokes tobacco, and turning on the furnace draws air laden with secondhand smoke from the attic into their two-bedroom home.
Her plight has drawn support from from city and county officials, a state lawmaker and American Lung Association advocates, who all see California moving slowly and unevenly toward the protection Orozco wants.
The cold is uncomfortable and keeps friends and family from visiting, but Orozco won’t tolerate the risk of smoke-tainted air.
“I’m afraid for our health,” she said, sitting at her kitchen table and wearing a black insulated jacket.
Behind her, a $1,200 air filter runs 24/7, an imperfect defense against the secondhand smoke that still leaks in from the attic through two ceiling vents.
Orozco’s entreaties to the neighbor and to the condo homeowners association have gotten no results, and she has lobbied city officials for help.
She’s become a poster child for the American Lung Association’s campaign to get cities in Sonoma County and throughout California to ban indoor smoking in multiunit dwellings.
“People have a right to breathe clean air,” said Kimberly Amazeen, an official with the American Lung Association in California. “They should feel the safest in their home.”
Since 2007, 33 California cities and counties have prohibited smoking in some or all of the units in apartments, condominiums and any other multifamily housing, the association says.
Cotati isn’t among them, and it is surrounded by jurisdictions that are: Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, Petaluma and the unincorporated county area.
If Orozco’s condo was four blocks farther east it would be in Rohnert Park, which enacted the county’s first indoor residential smoking restrictions in 2009.
The Rohnert Park-Cotati line is “the Berlin Wall of secondhand smoke,” said Timothy Brown, a Santa Rosa real estate broker who is sympathetic to Orozco’s plight.
So is David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, who wrote a letter in December to then-Mayor Mark Landman encouraging Cotati to adopt smoking limits in multi-unit housing.
Many multi-unit complexes provide an outdoor place to smoke, Rabbitt said in an interview. His own mother smoked, he said, “until her first heart attack.”
Children exposed to secondhand smoke in their homes are at “high risk” for sudden infant death syndrome, ear infections, severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections and other impacts, the state’s Tobacco Education and Research Oversight Committee said in a 2012 report.
The master plan of the 13-member state committee, which advises the Department of Public Health on tobacco control measures, said that state governments at all levels “should be encouraged to adopt and enforce additional policies to protect the public from secondhand smoke.”
California still has 3.6 million smokers, and smoking remains the state’s number one preventable cause of disease and death, the plan said.
Orozco said her daughter has suffered an ear infection and six upper respiratory tract infections in the past year.
Orozco, who’s played soccer since childhood, said she now experiences asthma attacks that “feel like I’m getting stabbed in the chest” when she runs.
Cotati Mayor John Dell’Osso and Councilman Landman both said they want to consider indoor smoking regulations later this year.
Cotati is “behind the times” on secondhand smoke, Dell’Osso said, acknowledging its neighbors’ actions.
Pam Granger, the Lung Association’s North Coast representative, said she will support Orozco’s appeal next month to the Cotati council for a ban on smoking inside multi-unit housing.
Smoking “really isn’t a matter of personal choice,” she said. “The smoke is not self-limiting.”
Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, said his bill to prohibit smoking in multi-unit housing statewide, introduced a year ago, was thwarted by apartment owners and poverty rights advocates.
Even when he amended the measure to make smoke-free housing by 2030 “a matter of state policy” rather than a law, Levine said he couldn’t muster the votes to move it out of committee.
The Western Center on Law & Poverty and California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, which opposed the legislation, said Levine’s original bill was “well-intentioned but ultimately the wrong solution.”
A letter from representatives of both groups said the proposed ban’s “greatest impact will be on smoking renters, disproportionately low-income, whom it would subject to fines and/or evictions.”
The California Apartment Association, which represents more than 50,000 rental housing owners and managers, said the bill failed to address “landlord liability” in enforcement of smoking bans.
“Landlords who currently allow smoking in their buildings will be forced to evict multiple tenants who have been law abiding, rent paying tenants for years,” said Debra Carlton, the association’s senior vice president public affairs, in a letter to Levine.
The bill is dead for the year, and Levine said he will try again in 2015. Protecting people from secondhand smoke is an “urgent need,” he said, but politically it will require “a long-term effort.”
Orozco said she has been attacked on her Facebook page, titled “Humans against involuntary smoking,” for trampling on an individual’s alleged right to smoke. One person called her “a horrible mother” and said she should move if she doesn’t like her situation.
The Tobacco Control Legal Consortium said in a 2008 report that there is “no such thing as a constitutional ‘right to smoke.’”
The absence of such a right “leaves the door wide open for smoke-free laws … that are rationally related to a legitimate government goal,” attorney Samantha Graff said in the report.
California’s smoke-free workplace law, enacted in 1994, was the first of its kind in the nation and came after more than 100 cities and counties had passed workplace smoking restrictions.
Anti-smoking advocates say the same pattern appears to be playing out now as local governments, once again moving faster than the state, adopt a patchwork of regulations on multiunit residential smoking.
As that trend continues, it may generate “the opportunity to have a level playing field statewide,” said Amazeen of the Lung Association.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.