Malcolm Lambert complains that smokers caused four fires in his apartment building over seven years.
  • Malcolm Lambert complains that smokers caused four fires in his apartment building over seven years.
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On September 29, Blease Johnson moved the old sofa in his living room to the curb outside his apartment building, near the intersection of 36th Street and Monroe Avenue in Normal Heights. The sofa was stained. Cigarette burns dotted the cushions. A large burn mark covered an entire armrest. The sofa belonged to Johnson’s girlfriend, Susan Cole. She suffers from Huntington’s disease and spent most of her days on the couch, smoking as she watched television.

Less than a month after moving the sofa to the street, where a thrift store picked it up, Johnson found an eviction notice taped to his door. The “Three-Day Notice to Quit” stated the reason for the eviction.

“A fire was carelessly started in your apartment from a lit cigarette smoked by Susan Cole,” read the notice, dated October 25. “This fire destroyed your sofa and put other residents at risk for fire being spread to their apartments. This behavior…disrupts the livability of the property, adversely affects the health and safety of other residents.”

Days after receiving the notice, Johnson sits at a small wood-laminate dining room table in the apartment. Cole sits behind him on another sofa and watches television.

“This fire thing came out of left field. As soon as we put that sofa out there, this comes,” says Johnson in a deep, raspy voice. Johnson, a tall, heavyset African American in his late 30s, slides the notice across the table. “I admit, the sofa was in bad shape. It was old and beat up.”

Behind him, Cole stands and nearly loses her balance on her first step. She walks to the table and sits opposite Johnson. Her arm shakes as she picks up a pack of cigarettes.

After taking a drag off her cigarette, she flicks the ashes into a large coffee tin on the table.

“At no time has the smoke alarm went off, and at no time has anyone come because of a fire,” says Johnson.

Maurice Luque, spokesperson for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, confirmed that no incidents have been reported at that address.

Johnson and Cole believe that they were evicted because Cole is a smoker, and they feel the eviction is unfair.

However, one local nonprofit organization would disagree. Social Advocates for Youth San Diego, through its San Diego Smoke-Free Project, is working to outlaw smoking in multifamily housing and adult residential-care facilities. During the past five years, the project has tried to persuade building owners to prohibit smoking inside dwelling units, and during the past year, it has lobbied city councilmembers to draft an ordinance that would outlaw smoking. The project cites the dangers of fire and secondhand smoke as the reasons for a smoking ban.

“A large number of people living in apartment complexes are impacted by secondhand smoke, especially in lower-income housing and senior living facilities,” says Mary Baum, a program coordinator for the San Diego Smoke-Free Project and an employee of Social Advocates for Youth.

According to the American Lung Association’s Center for Tobacco Policy and Organizing, 12 cities and 1 county in California have adopted ordinances that ban smoking in some percentage of multiunit apartment buildings. Last October, Contra Costa County, located in the Bay Area, adopted a nonsmoking ordinance that applies to every new apartment and condominium in buildings with four or more units. None of the 12 cities are in San Diego County. The closest is Temecula, in Riverside County, where in May 2007 city officials adopted an ordinance that requires 25 percent of the units in buildings with 10 or more units to be nonsmoking. The ordinance goes into effect in 2012.

Malcolm Lambert, a 78-year-old veteran, lives in Potiker Family Senior Residence, a low-income housing facility for seniors in the East Village. Lambert joins Baum and her associate Manuel Andrade at Claire de Lune coffee shop in North Park to talk about the dangers of secondhand smoke and fires in apartment buildings.

In the seven years since he moved to Potiker, Lambert says smokers there have started four fires.

“Two weeks ago, a guy was smoking with his oxygen mask on, and he set his head on fire,” says Lambert.

He fears that the next fire might not be contained. Lambert, who uses a wheelchair, worries that he’ll be trapped in the building.

“I figure I’d throw myself out of my fourth-floor window. It’s a quicker way to go than burning alive,” he says.

But fires aren’t Lambert’s only concern.

“Another serious problem is secondhand smoke. It permeates through the hallways. Little kids visiting their elderly relatives have to breath it in. I have to breath it in.”

Baum repeats what many consider common knowledge, that secondhand smoke creates adverse health impacts for children, the elderly, and those with chronic diseases. According to research, the health impacts are more evident in people who reside in multifamily buildings, where reports indicate a high incidence of asthma and other breathing problems in children.

Baum also has data on fires. In 2005 through 2009, smokers caused 67 fires in multifamily dwelling units in the county, resulting in more than a million dollars in damages.

Luque, the fire department spokesperson, states that smoking materials are one of the three leading causes of structural fires in San Diego.

Despite this evidence, Baum has found that it is “virtually impossible” to persuade all landlords to ban smoking in their complexes.

“Voluntary policies were ineffective,” she says. “It means they would have to stand up on their own. Vacancy rates would be impacted. It was extremely difficult.”

In 2009, coordinators for the San Diego Smoke-Free Project began to lobby city councilmembers to enact a ban on smoking in multiunit complexes. That appears to be just as impossible as a voluntary ban.

Project representatives gave a presentation to the city council’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee, and Baum says that members, including committee chair Marti Emerald, showed some support. But the committee expressed concern about the legality of a nonsmoking ordinance.

The committee requested that members of San Diego’s American Lung Association, Social Advocates for Youth, the San Diego Housing Federation, and San Diego County Apartment Association form a working group to come up with ideas for an ordinance.

“People were a little nervous about displacing smokers,” says Baum of the working group. “The people on the other side were not going to budge. So we drafted an ordinance that would declare smoking in multiunit apartment buildings a nuisance.”

In January 2010, the group submitted the draft ordinance to Councilmember Emerald. The group did not receive a response. In December 2010, the proposed law was resubmitted, and the working group encouraged Emerald to docket the issue.

“The nuisance ordinance was supposed to go to the city attorney to help revamp it,” says Baum. “It has stalled at Marti Emerald’s office. We have emailed and prodded. The City needs to do something — people are getting evicted — but the City of San Diego is not budging.”

Alan Pentico, director of public affairs for the San Diego County Apartment Association, was a member of the working group. He opposes an all-out ban. “Some people think this would be simple and straightforward, but the fact is, it is the exact opposite. People use smoking bans in restaurants and hotels as examples of how this could work, but people don’t live in restaurants, and there is a high turnover rate in hotels.”

Pentico feels an ordinance would be difficult to implement and enforce and that it would be financially burdensome to property owners.

Councilmember Emerald has many of the same concerns.

Emerald says the ordinance stalled because of questions about the legality of a ban. “There is evidence that children who live in apartment buildings where smokers are around suffer more from asthma and other lung disorders. I think that’s real. But where do the smokers’ rights begin, and where do they end?” asked Emerald during a December 14 phone interview.

One possibility, says Emerald, might be to designate smoking areas in affordable-housing buildings. However, Emerald considers a ban an invasion of privacy.

“In the privacy of your own home, don’t you have the right to light up a cigarette if you want?”

Baum disagrees. “Everyone speaks of the smoker’s rights, but what about the rights of the nonsmoker? What about our right to breathe clean air?”

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deserttrat Jan. 20, 2011 @ 2:07 p.m.

I think that a smoking section in apartment complexes would be great. Why don't they stop with that nuisance stuff and move to give us nonsmokers living in apartments an option to live near nonsmokers and put all the smokers in their own section. Thank you Marti Emerald for this great idea! I hope you are working on a law that does this!


Manu A Jan. 20, 2011 @ 5:30 p.m.

I wonder why Ms. Emerald is focusing on invasion of privacy with smokers... I thought she works for the majority of people, who, by the way, DO NOT SMOKE!

My question is how do you call when cigarette smoke is trespassing your property, gets to you and your family 24/7 in the middle of the night to choke you? Is that an invasion of privacy? Is breathing a clean air inside my house a right at all?

Come on! I thought we all have the right to be able to enjoy a healthy, affordable, adequate and acceptable housing.

Nuisance law… well, at least you will be able to bother the police in the middle of the night with a non-sense phone call trying to explain your inability to breath. Nah...

Sad that our legislators and the apartment industry are not willing to find solutions to this kind of housing situations, however, I have to say that Ms. Emerald’s comment or idea of separating both, smokers and not smokers is rad, I hope she follows through her own words. By designating a percentage of buildings to be no smoking and other percentage for smokers makes sense, It seems to be the perfect solution and everybody will be happy, unless, a bad fire occurs.


andromeda Jan. 20, 2011 @ 8:30 p.m.

Smoking is a public act, not a private one. Once a cigarette is lit, secondhand smoke does not know it is not supposed to drift. It only makes sense to protect peole's right to breathe in their own homes. There is no Constitutional right to smoke (settled law).

We do not permit activities that cause harm to others anywhere else. Why should secondhand smoke get a pass?


ConcernedSD Jan. 21, 2011 @ 9:29 a.m.

I have been trying to get some relief from my smoking neighbor in my apartment for over a year. I have moved before to get away from a smoker. Ms. Emerald, I love your idea of designating smoking areas! Please HELP!


Ponzi Jan. 22, 2011 @ 8:59 a.m.

A smoking section anywhere is like a peeing section in a pool.


MsGrant Jan. 22, 2011 @ 10:26 a.m.

Well said. There is no good place to smoke. I cannot travel with my sister because if we rent a car together she smokes the entire time. Absolute disregard for my health and comfort. It is a disgusting habit and one I hope eventually gets fazed out, whether by law or public awareness or both.


Ponzi Jan. 22, 2011 @ 10:34 a.m.

Ms. Grant, I feel the same. I cannot be around smokers. We are fortunate in California to have so many rules to protect non-smokers. When I visit other states where smoking is still permitted in restaurants, I can’t bear to eat in them. I have to get take out or drive thru. It’s hard to believe, yet I remember well, that we had “smoking sections” in restaurants and airplanes.


U92 Jan. 22, 2011 @ 9:38 a.m.

Nicotine addicts who are unwilling and/or unable to stop using their recreational drug have the option of using alternate delivery methods. As soon as they light up, their neighbours are forced to choose between their health and safety versus having a roof over their heads.

So on the one hand, we have to consider the right of the vast majority to protect their health and property. On the other, we have to consider the desire of a few to have convenient access to a preferred delivery method for a noxious and obnoxious non-essential drug. Hmmm ... tough choice! Which to chose?

"If you don't like it, move" is a bad idea for two reasons:

  1. if you refuse to provide an adequate supply of smoke-free housing, there is no "someplace else"; and

  2. if it's good enough for us, then it is good enough for smokers, the people creating the problem.

People are ALREADY being forced to move; unfortunately it's not the ones creating the problem. Establish laws that allow people to decide for themselves whether or not to allow smoking. And if smokers don't like it, then THEY can move "someplace else," same as is currently expected of all their neighbours.


SurfPuppy619 Jan. 22, 2011 @ 10:08 a.m.

I hate smokers.

Having said that-it is hard to quit. Some experts have said it is more addicting than heroin.

Not making excuses, just giving a reason why they have problems stopping.


Ponzi Jan. 22, 2011 @ 10:41 a.m.

I agree with you there Surfpuppy. I have a couple of friends who have tried quitting numerous times. After 25 years, they are still smoking. One was addicted to cocaine and alcohol and broke those addictions, but can’t stop smoking. From what I understand it isn’t even tobacco that is so addictive but all the additives the cigarette companies add to the tobacco.

Oh, and good morning to both of you, Surfpuppy and Ms. Grant! Have a nice weekend!


MsGrant Jan. 22, 2011 @ 11:14 a.m.

Top of the morning to you as well, Ponzi! Cigarettes are loaded with chemicals - all designed to "hook" people. There was a frightening study done recently where they discovered that just ONE drag from a cigarette alters your DNA. Second hand smoke KILLS PEOPLE, plain and simple. I just found out you can still smoke in Atlanta bars. This is a city I've always wanted to visit, but now I am not so sure.


Duhbya Jan. 22, 2011 @ 2:10 p.m.

To MsG, Ponzi, and SP: did any of you ever smoke(cigs)? I did, from age 15 until age 30. Gosh, hard to believe it's been 30 years since I fired one up. I quit 3 times, the first time for a year, cold turkey, then one day a friend lit one, and I blurted out "Gimme one of those"......a pack a day a week later. The last time, in 1980, I purposely switched brands to Camel unfiltered. After of couple month of months of waking up hacking, I quit for good. I always contended to friends who were trying to quit that it was mostly a habit, and could be broken in five or so days. Once you got past the body's motor system cues, and the social triggers associated with smoking, you were home free. I called it hand-to-mouth syndrome, being cognizant of, and willing to last long enough, to defeat the physical impulse of lifting the cig to your lips. Worked for me anyway, but I'm guessing that levels of addiction vary greatly. That final time, it took a year and a half before I realized that I was finally cured. Suddenly, one day, someone put a match to one and I was overcome with a nauseous feeling, and needed air immediately. This sensation has remained, and I have observed it in others, especially my wife, who was much deeper into the practice than I, and quit the day we made the decision to try to have a child. I link the post cessation repulsion factor to the body's response the first time cigarette smoke is inhaled. That all being said, I try to have empathy for many, not all, of those I know who still smoke. Many of them have tried to quit, but either have not found the right technique or are so severely addicted that virtually nothing works. The ones who show a blatant disregard for other folks' breathing space are the ones I'm bothered by. Walk in or out of a no-smoking restaurant and there's someone standing at the entrance huffing away. Yecch. I'm particularly irked when I find cig butts strewn about the perimeter of my home. I try not to go overboard, having been a user, indeed, I even sat in the smoking sections (that explains the "Duh" in my handle) because I found the people more interesting. To this day, if someone asks if they can smoke in my vehicle, I say "Sure, but both windows will be open". I guess my point in posting this is to make a plea for tolerance and understanding on both sides of the issue. If you want and need to smoke, fine, but please respect my decision to avoid the by-product of your habit, especially as it relates to my wife and daughter being exposed to it.


Duhbya Jan. 22, 2011 @ 2:16 p.m. the previous, post, the line " I even sat in the smoking sections (that explains the "Duh" in my handle) because I found the people more interesting" should have mentioned that I was referring to airline flights, when one could still request to be seated in the smoking or non sections. By the way, have you noticed how wafting cig smoke ALWAYS finds its way to the ex or non-smokers? LOL....


MsGrant Jan. 22, 2011 @ 6:52 p.m.

"Suddenly, one day, someone put a match to one and I was overcome with a nauseous feeling, and needed air immediately. This sensation has remained..." Duhbya, this is exactly how I feel about cigarette smoke. I used to be one of the "I only smoke when I drink" folks. One day I looked at the butt in my hand and went "ugh. This is foul." Sure, folks with addictions are WAAAAAY more interesting than the soccer moms and dads, but they come with a price. And NO ONE smokes in my car. My car is pristine - the ashtray has never been used and never will it be. I don't think this makes me intolerant. I think it makes me value my car's resale value ;)


SurfPuppy619 Jan. 22, 2011 @ 6:53 p.m.

Yes, I did smoke as a youngster. Like you- probably from about 15 to late 20's. I stopped for one week, then relasped, then stopped for 3 months and relapsed, long story short every time I quit I was able to go longer and longer before the relapse, until finally one day it just ended. I knew if I could continue to go longer and longer before relapsing I eventually would kick the bad habbit.

Back then smokes were 50 cents a pack. I smoked Marloboro 100's. Crazy days. But those were the too much fun days-parties every weekend, drinking, smoking cigs, being an idiot. Those were some fun times, but I would never want to relive them. Driving drunk back then is without a doubt the dumbest, most irresponsible, stooopidest thing I have ever done in my life. I am ashamed I ever drove a vehicle under the influence. Being young, stupid and inexperienced was part of it, but man was I an idiot back then.


Duhbya Jan. 23, 2011 @ 4:14 a.m.

MsG (and Surfpuppy): I would never suggest that (either of) you could be accused of intolerance. To the contrary, your posts consistently demonstrate that. I agree with you about your vehicle, and I would never let anyone smoke in my wife's car for the same reasons. I should clarify that I drive an older one ton truck. And not very often these days since I work from home and put in twelve hour days. In fact, the last time the situation presented itself was three years ago when my best friend visited from Texas. I gave him the truck to use while he was here and asked him to keep the window open when he smoked and to use an ashtray other than the one in the vehicle. There was no residual odor in it after he went home.


Ponzi Jan. 23, 2011 @ 7:19 a.m.

I smoked. On and off over the years. I was the guy who bummed cigs off you. I smoked in bars when I drank. I smoked in the aerospace plants I worked in during the 80’s. I smoked at parties and sometimes alone. The only time I let anyone smoke in my house was if it was a woman that I was seriously very close to having sex with and didn’t want to discourage them. Otherwise nobody smoked in my home.

I just am one of those people who could take it or leave it. I rarely bought packs of cigarettes myself unless it was to replenish the supply of one of the buddies I was always bumming them off of. I had a nasty habit of smoking half a cig and then smoking the other half later. One of the things I enjoyed was smoking cigars.

I never smoked for any extended period of time and never smoked more than four or five cigarettes a day. There were periods where I would go months without touching one. Mostly they were accessories to alcohol and a way to join friends and socialize with friends who were smokers.

My father was a heavy smoker of Pall Mall (no filters) most of his life. He eventually had to have a triple by-pass and later died. But long before that all happened I had quit touching cigarettes and soon hated them in a big way.

The odd thing is that I ran a business in the 1980’s and kept the smokers in one set of offices and the non-smokers in non-smoking sections of the building. Smoke itself always bothered me somewhat. Smoking, especially while drinking, did not. I haven’t touched a cigarette in over 12 years. I would say my experience qualifies with knowing about smoking but not being gripped with the addiction. As I mentioned before I have some friends who are seriously addicted and I think I will soon see them have some serious health issues due to it. Yet I have also seen smokers go through life without many problems. My father, a lifelong smoker, made it to age 85. So they don’t all die young.

However I don’t tolerate smoking at all anymore. No one may smoke in my car or home. I avoid smoke when I am outdoors. And most significantly, when I was employed in management positions I deliberately did not hire someone who I suspected was a smoker. I would even do things to “smoke them out” like have a long interview or have us got to lunch and ask them to drive so I could smell their car. In business, I found smokers to be less productive in so many ways. Sick more often, time wasters from always taking smoke breaks, and distracting because when a smoker does take a smoke break other smokers leave their desk to join in the party. So a word to the wise, employers don’t hire a smoker and smokers quit smoking and your job and dating prospects will improve.


utopia125 Jan. 24, 2011 @ 6:03 p.m.

Someone's "privilege to smoke" stops when their actions harms others, because they live somewhere with shared ventilation. I 100% support smoke-free living for sections of apartments and condos.


Visduh Jan. 24, 2011 @ 8:17 p.m.

If anyone has been paying close attention, it is obvious that our armed forces have stayed with the vice of choice, smoking. Even in combat in Afghanistan or Iraq, where one's stamina can be a life/death issue, the grunts smoke.

A very long time ago, the military had cigs that were 14 cents a pack stateside, and a mere 11 cents a pack overseas (as in Vietnam.) I was one of very few who did not smoke and smoke to excess. Those prices reflected a desire to give the troops some sort of outlet that did not immediately incapacitate them. Hey, let 'em smoke up a storm! They'll still fight.

During the era when smokers and smoking were everywhere, there were some venues that a non-smoker could avoid. Back in the 70's we generally avoided eating out because the restaurants were all smoke saturated. (How much we saved in money and unneeded calories I cannot even estimate.) Finally by the early 80's the tide began to recede. I found myself in working in a smoke free office building. Halleluiah! Then restaurants had to ban smoking in California. So much the better. Then even bars--BARS--had to ban smoking. Will wonders never cease? Finally the smokers were the isolated few, instead of the non-smokers. In my 20's I could have never imagined how pleasant life could be with no smoke in public places.

Travels to Europe and the UK don't reveal such a distaste for smoking, although it is not as acceptable as it once was. It is a good thing we travel in summer, because that allowed us to dine al fresco most days and avoid the concentrated smoke of the enclosed restaurant/pub/beer hall. Ten years ago, the typical Brit had a "fag" (cigarette) in one hand and a "mobyle" (cell phone) in the other. The picture on the Continent was about the same. With the government on the hook for all the healthcare, it was inconceivable that smoking was so readity facilitated, nay, encouraged. In Germany there was a cigarette machine on every block, and we saw 13-year olds buying them and puffing away.

Smoking is insidious for sure. I can only thank my genes for leaving me allergic to tobacco smoke and utterly intolerant of exposure to it.


thefrenchpro Jan. 28, 2011 @ 1:30 p.m.

Ok - I do not have the time to finish this article, but it seems to be that smokers are being discriminated against more and more. “Evicted” because the people were smoking. Are we becoming out of our minds! Second hand smoking! Ah, what a concept. What about the way 85 percent of Americans feed themselves, with junk food that kills them. Has anyone “sue” these people yet! I have smoked for 40 years. I am very healthy, thank you, but I never eat the crap served in most restaurants. My freezer is empty, in the exception of ice cubes. Would you people fight and put your energy for the real problems, like health care, famine in our own USA, discrimination against minorities, a sense of community, respect for others believes, etc. This is boring and pathetic. Would you rather be in Egypt right now? I am sure that Egyptians are not occupying their time with “smokers”


Duhbya Jan. 28, 2011 @ 3:11 p.m.

"I have smoked for 40 years. I am very healthy, thank you," .....seen a pic of your lungs lately?

"My freezer is empty, in the exception of ice cubes." Sure it is...


MsGrant Jan. 28, 2011 @ 1:53 p.m.

No one has ever gotten ill from secondhand french fries, thefrenchpro.


thefrenchpro Jan. 28, 2011 @ 2:13 p.m.

You completely missed my point Ms Grant lol


Visduh Jan. 28, 2011 @ 3:57 p.m.

The conventional wisdom today is that second-hand smoke is a real hazard. I won't claim that it is, except that I think kids should have the opportunity to grow up free of breathing smoke. My reason for not wanting to smell second-hand smoke is that I hate the smell! It also makes me sneeze, cough, and gives me a headache. Yep, second-hand smoke IS a concept, a real one, and one that I can't stand.


jsidney Jan. 30, 2011 @ 1:36 a.m.

Huntington's Disease is a chronic progressive autosomal dominant neurodegenerative disorder. The pathological changes manifest clinically in midlife as a progressive impairment of motor function. In spite of extensive research this devastating hereditary disease remains incurable.

The natural alkaloid nicotine present in Nicotiana tabacum is by far the most widely studied substance that originates from tobacco smoke and exhibits widespread pharmacological effects. During the last decade, there has been a rapid explosion of publications reporting the neuroprotective activity of nicotine that clearly suggest that nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) in the CNS is a new potential therapeutic target for the management of neurodegenerative diseases. O'Neill et al. have suggested that neuronal nAChRs agonists could provide motor improvement and retard the progressive course of various diseases including Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's Disease and Huntington's Disease. Furthermore, nicotine has been shown to protect various neurons against a variety of neurotoxins via nAChRs. (M. Tariq et al, Brain Research Bulletin 67, 2005)

In short, the lady in the apartment smokes to control her Huntington's Disease. And you delicate lilies want her to go live under a bridge! Feh!


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