San Mateo smoking rules get more stringent

San Mateo will likely become the latest Peninsula city to expand restrictions on smoking.

The new rules, which will be voted on by the City Council during its Sept. 21 meeting, would sharply curtail the number of public and private spaces where smoking is allowed. Thus far, no council members have voiced opposition to the rules, which would also expand the town’s secondhand smoke ordinance to include e-cigarettes, vaping and marijuana.

Some aspects of the new ordinance set San Mateo apart from other towns, both in terms of the city’s goals and its approach to accomplishing them.

Chief of Police Susan Manheimer said city staff and police were asked to make recommendations addressing public smoking, smoking in buildings and environmental impacts, which can include cigarette butts entering the Bay.

Some cities have banned smoking in their downtown areas, but Manheimer said San Mateo’s regulations were designed to be “balanced, and not too far-reaching,” compared to other municipalities.

Under the ordinance, smoking is prohibited in “public service areas,” defined as any place residents might have to wait, like bus stops, train stations, ATMs or movie theater ticket lines.

“If you can’t not be there, you can’t smoke there,” the police chief explained.

Smoking will be prohibited in all outdoor areas owned or leased by the city, including parks and parking lots. Grounds surrounding city buildings will be designated as non-smoking, but the ban will not include streets or sidewalks surrounding city buildings.

Smoking will also be prohibited inside, or within 40 feet of, multi-unit dwellings.

Medical marijuana users will still be allowed to smoke inside their apartments. But that exception exists because pot smoking will be banned everywhere else, even if it’s for medicinal purposes.

Manheimer acknowledged people with legitimate medical needs for cannabis might find the ban burdensome, but said the new restriction was driven by a significant uptick in complaints about public pot smoking by those who appeared to have acquired medical marijuana identification cards, despite having no illness or disability.

“Most of these people smoking pot outside bars and restaurants seemed to be young, able-bodied men of a certain age, getting high,” Manheimer noted.

In addition to protecting health, the public smoking restrictions are meant to prevent cigarette butts from entering the city’s stormwater system and flowing to the Bay.

A smoking ban for boaters using Marina Lagoon is also included in the new rules. Manheimer advised against such a restriction, saying it would have been virtually unenforceable, but the council supported that aspect of the rules.

Water quality has been a problem at Marina Lagoon, and keeping cigarettes out of stormwater runoff flowing to the waterway is one of several remedial actions the city is taking. Other steps, which have yielded some improvement, include managing nuisance plant growth and cleaning up animal droppings.

Because the legislation amends the city’s municipal code to clearly define e-cigarettes as tobacco products, the city will be able to use the permitting process to better control the proliferation of e-cigarettes, Manheimer said.

Tightly controlling vape sales is crucial, Manheimer claimed, because smoking e-cigarettes has become the most common discipline violation at area middle schools.

Although the law would take effect Oct. 21, there will be six months of education and outreach before cops begin actively citing residents for violating the new rules, Manheimer said.
“The attempt is to change behavior, not engage in a punitive process,” the police chief noted, “We don’t want to be the smoking police.”

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