SONOMA COUNTY -- The first provisions of Sonoma County's smoke-free law went into effect in early December, a move viewed by proponents as both a critical step in making the county healthier as well as a relatively rare achievement for a county.

The law is one of just a few such ordinances throughout California that prohibits smoking in county-owned areas, buildings and existing apartment buildings in unincorporated Sonoma County. Similar ordinances abound throughout the state, but mostly at the city level. Only two other counties, Contra Costa and Santa Clara, have taken similar efforts in their unincorporated regions, according to the American Lung Association.

"It's more likely that a city rather than a county would do it," said Michelle House, health education grant manager for the Northern California Center for Well-Being, which did much of the outreach work and is working with the local governments to make Sonoma the healthiest county in the state by 2020.

In Marin, numerous municipalities have similar ordinances, among them Novato, Larkspur, Fairfax and Tiburon. In Sonoma County, Sebastopol and Rohnert Park have existing policies that regulate smoking inside of mult-unit housing, while Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Windsor and Healdsburg have ordinances only for outdoor smoking.

Napa County has a few local anti-smoking ordinances -- banning smoking in parks in Napa, American Canyon and St. Helena.

Sonoma County supervisors Shirlee Zane and Mike McGuire sat on an ad hoc committee that formed the legislation, and the board passed it unanimously, with one absent, on Oct. 4. The ordinance does not apply to areas within the boundaries of local cities.

In addition to numerous benefits cited by health advocates, the no-smoking policies are proving popular among landlords and building managers, who are realizing that apartment units and buildings remain in better condition without second-and-third-hand smoke wafting throughout them.

"They're going to save financially," Ms. House said of building owners. "Let's say you have a smoker in an apartment for five years. It becomes part of that apartment, and the amount of money needed to turn that around is amazing."

It also helps eliminate some of the most common disputes among tenants, thereby reducing stress for tenants and building managers alike, Ms. House said.

"What you see in an apartment is the devastation of third-hand smoke," she said. "It's kind of like how mold can do serious damage. So can smoke. It also cuts down on people arguing a lot. If a smoker lives next to a non-smoker, it can be a little brutal for a building manager. When you cut it out, there's no more feud. "

Ms. House also said the ordinance does not infringe upon the rights of smokers, who are taking part in a perfectly legal activity. Rather, the ordinance is about balancing the needs of everyone and overall public health, she said.

"When we're looking at it, some smokers will say, 'You're taking away my right to smoke.' But 85 percent of Sonoma County doesn't smoke. We're not telling you that you can't smoke, we're just adding some guidelines. It becomes a public health issue. When the tenant next to you is having an asthma attack, it's a health concern," Ms. House said.

In November, the first provision -- no smoking in common areas of multiunit residences in unincorporated areas except in designated areas -- took effect.

The major provisions that took effect on Dec. 3 of this year are: no smoking on county-owned property except in designated smoking areas; no smoking in county-owned vehicles; no smoking at county-owned recreational areas, public events and service areas; no smoking in at least 75 percent of hotel and motel guest rooms in unincorporated areas; and no smoking within a "reasonable distance" of 25 feet of entryways, doors, operable windows and vents.

Beginning on June 1, 2012, no smoking will be allowed in outdoor dining areas, including picnic areas and sidewalks. On Jan. 12, 2013, existing units of multiunit residences must be smoke free. And on Feb. 3, 2013, smoking will be banned in any county regional parks campground, except in designated areas.

The new ordinance is overseen by the county Health and Human Services Department. The Center for Well Being is a key part of Sonoma County's efforts, through Health Action, to become the healthiest county in the state by 2020. The no-smoking ordinance is the latest part of this effort, which included the goals of reinforcing healthy lifestyles and decreasing health care costs.

Enforcement penalties are $100 for a first violation, $200 for a second and $500 for a third or any additional violation. Business owners who knowingly permit smoking will be assessed. If a business owner or manager requests that an individual smoking stop or asks them to leave, they will not be held liable; the law does not require businesses to physically remove or risk physical harm in stopping someone from smoking.