"I'm a nonsmoker, and I'm all for it; I have asthma," said Alice Larson, 51, who was meeting a friend at a Mexican restaurant. "We have a right to breathe clean air. I think it's a great ordinance ... I'm sure I'm in the minority."

Indeed. Most comments had more in common with Rick DeWitt's ridicule than Larson's enthusiasm. To this electrical contractor and fellow nonsmoker, the proposal is "truly stepping over the line." So far over, he said, that "everybody's laughing at it."

"The joke," DeWitt said, "is if you're driving down El Camino and you're speeding and you get pulled over and you're smoking, is the penalty increased?"

Few Bonnie Brae residents would laugh at that one. In 2003, a cigarette-caused fire destroyed 29 units at the complex. Management has since declared the apartments smoke-free for all new tenants, but existing smokers are allowed to puff away. The residents who marched to City Hall want the nuisance proclamation so they have legal recourse if others' smoke makes their lives miserable.

Goodrich, who lives in a Bonnie Brae building where no one is allowed to smoke, declined through his daughter to be interviewed. But Husmann said her father "really has a heart for people who are stuck next to a smoker and they have no recourse and the smoker gets to be there."

"When you have a smoker and a nonsmoker living next to each other in an apartment, the smoker is fine. It's the nonsmoker who feels the pain," Husmann said, especially if that person has asthma or other respiratory problems. "The right to breathe fresh air is the greatest right."

It hasn't always been that way. John Banzhaf, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University and executive director of the advocacy group Action on Smoking and Health, said tobacco regulations have generally mirrored society's changing knowledge about secondhand smoke as a carcinogen.

In the late 1940s, '50s and most of the '60s, people could smoke virtually everywhere they went, with a few minor restrictions related to fire hazards, he said. When smoke was recognized at the very least as an irritant and temporary health hazard, segregated smoking and nonsmoking sections cropped up everywhere, from airplanes to offices.

That was during much of the 1970s, '80s and '90s, he said, a period underscored by the idea that "smokers have rights." Then California banned smoking in restaurants and the workplace, and the boundary for permissible smoking tightened. Suddenly it was not OK to smoke indoors in public places.

When Calabasas voted last year to effectively ban smoking outdoors, the boundary moved again. But the city, Banzhaf said, deliberately chose not to address the smoke that drifts from private home to private home in the close confines of apartment buildings and condos -- at least for the time being.

Which brings us to Belmont, "which is taking the lead," he said.

It is unclear just what the City Council will do when presented with the first draft of its new ordinance, whether the anti-smoking fervor on display in November will survive, what kind of history will be made, where the line will be drawn.

That was when Warden declared, to much applause, at a council meeting: "Wouldn't it be nice to have a smoke-free city, where you don't smoke in the parks, you don't smoke outside, you don't smoke in front of Starbucks, you just don't do it?"

At the same meeting, Serena Chen stepped up to the podium, a little dazed, and marveled: "I have worked on this issue for about 15 years for the American Lung Assn., and I feel that the revolution has taken off, and I am trying to catch up with it."

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maria.laganga@latimes.com

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Butting in

Calabasas' 2006 ordinance restricting smoking in public places capped a push to ban outdoor smoking. Indoor smoking is again in the spotlight, with Belmont considering a ban in apartments and condos. Protecting children is another recent focus of anti-smoking regulation.

Cars

At least two states -- Arkansas and Louisiana -- have banned smoking in cars when children are present. Bangor, Maine, passed a similar ordinance earlier this month.

Foster children

At least eight states protect foster children from tobacco smoke, including Alaska, Arizona, Maine, North Dakota and Oklahoma. Although there is no statewide regulation in California, some counties do regulate smoking around foster children.

Custody disputes

Courts in dozens of jurisdictions around the country, including some in California, have ruled that smoking can be prohibited in a private dwelling where there is a child in a custody dispute.

Sources: Action on Smoking and Health, the Associated Press