Thursday, November 22, 2001

The Montgomery County, Md. decision to fine smokers up to $750 for letting their smoke drift into a neighbor’s home has residents wondering how far county leaders will go with anti-smoking laws that are already among the most aggressive in the nation.
Six of the County Council’s nine members voted to throw out a provision that would have exempted tobacco smoke from indoor air pollutants regulated under an update of the county’s clean-air law.
And they did so although the county’s environmental officials told them the agency had received no complaints from anyone about a neighbor’s cigarette smoke polluting the air inside their homes.
“The Department of Environmental Protection has far better things to do than enforce this,” said council member Michael Subin, a Democrat. He and Republican Nancy Dacek cast the two votes against the bill. Marilyn Praisner voted ‘present.’
Under the broad provisions of the bill, a disgruntled person might even have a right to seek county intervention to curb his neighbors’ flatulence, Mr. Subin said.
Council member Isiah Leggett said he opposed an exemption for secondhand tobacco smoke because county residents had complained to him that they’d found nowhere in county government to take their problem.
“I’ve gone into some places where you’d think the [resident] was a smoker” but the smell had come from a neighbor above or below, said Mr. Leggett, a Democrat.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said he submitted the bill to strengthen the county’s authority to investigate complaints about such conditions that he said are a “serious environmental issue.”
And Mr. Duncan said he’ll sign it even without the secondhand-smoke exemption.
“If we find the provision becomes a nuisance because people are using it to vent their frustrations aboutsmokers in general, we’ll look at changing or repealing it,” said Duncan spokesman David Weaver.
County residents had mixed reactions to the measure yesterday.
Lillian Pena Torres, who lives in the Village Overlook Apartments in Gaithersburg, said the health of others should be considered.
“We’ve never had a problem here, but I would be really bothered if I could smell cigarette smoke floating into my house. My husband’s got asthma,” said Mrs. Torres, 33.
“I don’t see how they’re ever going to do it,” one man who asked not to be identified said of the measure. He indicated that he didn’t think the law would go unchallenged or unchanged.
A former smoker himself, he said he’s surrounded by people who light up.
“I’ve got three women next to me who smoke, and because of the thin walls, sometimes I can smell it in my closet. The people below me smoke on their porch, and that also drifts up and into my house. [In the winter] I keep the door closed, but in the summer they’re out there and it gets in.
“I can’t dislike a person who smokes. I killed the habit a long time ago.”
Lee and Sandra Friedman just moved to Gaithersburg. Mr. Friedman, 73, smoked cigars for 50 years until recently quitting at his wife’s request. He described the measure as “ridiculous.”
“I think it’s unconstitutional,” he said.
“If you live in Potomac in a big house, you can smoke all you want. But when you’re close together here, it’s different,” Mrs. Friedman said of their apartment complex, which has three or four residences on each level.
Sandra Downing, 45, a nursing-home assistant and a mother, lives in a town house on Montgomery Village Avenue. She was skeptical of the measure’s good intentions.
“What can [smoking] do to anyone? I’m a nurse, and when my residents take a smoke, they go outside because they don’t want to hurt others. One man gets up at 6 o’clock in the morning every day on the button to smoke. That’s his routine, his life. What are you going to tell him, that he can’t do that anymore?”
James A. Caldwell, the county’s environmental-protection director, said inspectors will work with occupants or building owners to solve any problems with reasonable solutions, such as adjusting ventilation or putting a room air cleaner where they smoke.
Homeowners or landlords would be fined $500 only if they are found responsible for harmful smoke levels in someone’s home and do not remedy it. Mr. Caldwell said county agencies now issue only about 15 to 30 $500 fines year. The fine rises to $750 only if the $500 fine is ignored.
The county has hired an industrial hygienist to address the problems of indoor-air quality, which Mr. Caldwell said are more often caused by the use of chemicals, such as paint or pesticides, too close to vulnerable people or where ventilation is poor.
Typical examples include an auto paint shop whose fumes filter into a neighboring day care center or nail salon next to a pizza shop, he said.
Before the county will act against an indoor air-pollution complaint, two persons must attest that the problem exists, Mr. Leggett said. Then the situation will be investigated and warnings issued if warranted.
Mr. Leggett and other county officials said they believe complaints will increase initially but level off as people learn about indoor-air pollution and how to fix it.
Supporters of the measure cite studies that indicate pollutants, including tobacco smoke, can reach concentrations indoors that are 25 to 100 times outdoor levels.
Mr. Subin, who said he worries that the measure will discriminate against people who cannot afford large yards, said he has asked Mr. Leggett if he can come smoke an occasional cigar at his home that sits on a six-acre lot.
The American Civil Liberties Union said it will be watching closely to see whether smokers’ rights are violated.
“Our concern is that Montgomery County not go overboard in protecting the health of its residents,” said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the Washington regional branch of the ACLU.
Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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