By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Prodded by a concerned citizen and a grade of F on an American Lung Association report card of its efforts to restrict secondhand smoke, Sonoma is considering banning smoking in its historic Plaza.
As Mayor Tom Rouse envisions it, the prohibition would extend to multi-unit housing complexes in the city of nearly 11,000 inhabitants.
“It’s like someone spilling a beer on me,” Rouse said about secondhand smoke. “That wouldn’t be tolerated. Why would this be tolerated?”
Rouse, who owns several Sonoma condominiums where he has prohibited smoking from the sidewalk in, brought the idea to the City Council last week. The council voted 4-1 to ask city staff to study the issue, with David Cook opposed.
“I’ve always thought that we shouldn’t have too much government restriction and that would be an example of that,” Cook said this week.
Paul Spadaro is conflicted. A former heavy smoker, he owns the popular Steiner’s Tavern on the Plaza’s west side, and his patrons frequently gather on the sidewalk to smoke.
“From a health standpoint, I wish they’d get rid of (cigarettes) altogether. I think it’s a filthy habit and it’s bad for the environment, the butts and all of that,” he said.
“But as an entrepreneur who’s in the bar business, I want my customers to be as comfortable as possible, and smoking is part of that,” Spadaro said. “I’m on the fence, to be honest.”
The American Lung Association’s January report on tobacco control in California cities and counties put Sonoma among 61 percent of all communities statewide with an F grade — along with Cloverdale and Cotati in Sonoma County.
Rohnert Park, Sebastopol and Sonoma County each won a B. And Petaluma moved up to a B from a D, recognition of its new ban on smoking in apartments and other multi-unit housing complexes. Santa Rosa, Windsor and Healdsburg got D’s.
Following the report, Sonoma resident Elizabeth Emerson approached Rouse. The Marin County public health consultant, who works to reduce smoking, said she also was motivated by a situation in her apartment complex in which an infant has been hospitalized with a severe health condition related to the mother’s smoking.
“I thought, ‘That’s it, I’m going to go to the mayor and see if anything else can be done about this,’¬” Emerson said.
Rouse didn’t need much convincing. “I just believe it’s time we as a community address the health factors involved in smoking within the community,” he said.
Sitting on a Plaza bench on Tuesday, Liang Pei Chen, visiting from Valley Springs, heartily endorsed the prospect of a ban.
“This is just such a pristine place,” she said. “It’s the heartbeat of the entire community, right? Where you can sit and breathe the fresh air. It’s just so incongruous, smoking here.”
But across the street, Hank Marioni, owner of the Swiss Hotel Bar and Restaurant, worried about balancing health imperatives with different customer preferences.
“You try and accommodate everybody,” said Marioni, who permits smoking on the front patio of his restaurant.
On the other hand, he said this week, as smoking’s popularity declines, it’s a hard balance to continually manage in the hospitality business.
“Every other city’s doing it so I think probably the best thing would be if Sonoma did place a ban on smoking — that would get it off my shoulders.”
Smokers on the Plaza — of whom very few were to be found on a recent afternoon — were of varying minds.
“I would be fine with not smoking in the park or in public,” said Brian Coultrup of Napa, who is considering a move to Sonoma. On Tuesday, after a late breakfast, he enjoyed a cigarette on First Street West at the edge of the grassy central square.
“I have a son on the way next month, so I sympathize with that,” he said. “Because I wouldn’t smoke in front of my son, and I don’t want to expose him or other kids to it.”
A short while later, Damian Cohn of Santa Rosa nervously smoked a cigarette on a Plaza bench.
“When I lit up, I just assumed what I was doing was illegal,” he said. “I assumed in a pristine plaza like this it wouldn’t be allowed.”
He was resigned to the idea that it soon might not be, but felt it would be a step too far.
“It seems inevitable, but I think people overreact a great deal to the dangers of secondhand smoke,” said Cohn. “I don’t think, especially outdoors, that it poses a threat, so I think banning smoking is overkill, no pun intended.”
Paul Strong of Strong Property Management, which oversees homeowner association multi-unit housing complexes in Sonoma, predicted enforcement would be a problem.
“Everyone’s got a manpower shortage; they can’t have people on the Sonoma payroll going out and looking for smokers,” he said.
Emerson, who lobbied for a Marin County ordinance that in 2012 banned smoking in all apartment and condominium complexes, said the solution was explaining to the public why it was necessary and what it meant.
“We did massive education in Marin,” she said. “These laws tend to be self-enforcing once the public is educated.”
In unincorporated Sonoma County, the Department of Health Services responds to complaints about smoking and delivers education services. In Petaluma, the latest city to implement widespread smoking prohibitions, an abatement officer within the police department responds to complaints.
No date was set for the matter to come back to Sonoma’s City Council.
“We are at the early stages of understanding the implications,” Rouse said. “What has worked in other communities? We want to be realistic. We know enforcement will be a challenge.”