The City Council in San Rafael, a community of 57,000 people about 15 miles north of San Francisco, voted unanimously for the ban, following a handful of other California municipalities that have outlawed smoking in buildings with as few as two units.
Tobacco-control experts predicted that the tough smoking ordinance in San Rafael could touch off a larger movement in other states and cities.
"The San Rafael ban is a very significant event because it will spread," said Robert Proctor, a Stanford University history of science professor. "We're on the downslope of a big curve. Smoking peaked in 1981 with 630 billion cigarettes sold in the United States. Now it's down to 350 billion. And that number will keep on going down until smoking is a distant memory."
San Rafael is the state's ninth municipality to completely restrict smoking in multi-unit housing, said Pam Granger, advocacy manager for the American Lung Association in California. Granger said California was the only state where local jurisdictions have banned smoking in homes.
The ordinance has generally been supported by residents who have spoken at city council meetings, although two smokers came out to oppose the ban on Monday evening.
"This proposed smoking ban actually intends to punish people for what they do in their own homes," Thomas Ruppenthal told the council. "I really feel this is tyranny."
The ordinance also would prohibit smoking on San Rafael's downtown streets - the backdrop for parts of the 1973 film "American Graffiti."
When George Lucas filmed his coming-of-age movie in his hometown in 1973 people smoked at work, on airplanes, in restaurants, even in schools and hospitals. It was not until 1977 that neighboring Berkeley became the world's first city to restrict smoking in restaurants.
California restaurants and most workplaces went smoke-free in 1995, and bars, once a smokers' haven, followed in 1998. California and three other states now restrict smoking in cars with children.
Secondhand smoke kills an estimated 50,000 Americans, including 430 infants, a year, according to a 2006 U.S. Surgeon General's report. It concluded that concentrations of cancer-causing and toxic chemicals might be higher in secondhand smoke than in the fumes that smokers directly inhale.
California municipalities have used the report to prohibit smoking in apartments and other multi-family homes. In some cases, the laws apply only to new construction or to just a percentage of a housing complex's units.
But the restrictions have become increasingly strict, and San Rafael's ordinance applies to all homes, new or existing and rented or owned, with shared walls.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Doina Chiacu)