The city council of Novato, Calif., offers a textbook example of how good intentions are no substitute for good policy.
Back in January, the city council passed an unprecedented anti-smoking ordinance that hands landlords arbitrary power over their tenants, targets the poor, and could actually harm public health.
The law is the first of its kind in that it gives landlords the right to evict tenants for using not just cigarettes, but all tobacco-related products, including e-cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and bizarrely enough, ashtrays. The law will apply to all multi-unit apartment complexes, condominiums, and mobile home parks.
Scheduled to go into effect in January 2018, tenants and guests of tenants found using any of these products, including those that contain no tobacco like e-cigarettes, will be vulnerable to eviction.
Even the most zealous anti-tobacco crusader might blush at a law so sweeping in scope that simply owning an ashtray or allowing a guest to vape could lose you your home.
If this wasn’t a frightening enough prospect for Novato renters, the law makes it illegal for anyone “causing, permitting, abetting or concealing a violation of any provision of this section.”
In effect, tenants would not just be in danger of falling foul of rules that apply to their homes, but to those of their neighbors as well. If you know your neighbor is breaking the ordinance and fail to report it, you might be subject to the same penalties. Enforcement of the ban is entirely at the landlord’s discretion, handing them an enormous amount of power over their tenants.
For good measure, the law allows anyone to sue a renter who breaks the rules two times or more and collect the damages. This establishes an ugly profit motive, incentivizing those who wish to spend their time monitoring and reporting other people’s behavior to the authorities.
These arbitrary rules are even more objectionable given who will be subjected to them. Single-family homeowners are exempt from the law, meaning it will only be applied to residents who cannot afford such a home in Novato, whose median price is running around $750,000, according to the Zillow Home Value Index.
The law’s discriminatory impact is troubling, to say the least, but so is its scope for the kinds of products that are included. E-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products, while not entirely risk-free, represent a fraction of the risks of smoking and are helping people quit where traditional remedies have failed.
Policies that make it harder for people to switch from lethal combustible cigarettes to reduced-risk alternatives undermine the cause of tobacco harm reduction. Putting products like e-cigarettes and snus, which have never killed anyone in the same category as a product that kills 50 percent of its users is counterproductive at best and actively dangerous at worst.
The impulse for a tobacco-free community may be strong among the city council, but achieving it at the expense of handing massive discretionary power to landlords, discriminating against lower-income renters, and reducing the prospects for tobacco harm reduction is not a price worth paying.