New no-smoking frontier: condos and apartments

After retiree Judy Wilson moved from Georgia back to her hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., in 1997, life was sweet: Fresh air, beautiful scenery, quiet neighbors.

A year later, a heavy smoker moved in across the hall at Ms. Wilson's second-floor apartment in Arlington Town Apartments. Wilson says her life changed.

"I started having all kinds of breathing problems and eye irritations," says Wilson, a retired assembly-line worker. After maintenance personnel tried and failed to stop the smoke in several ways, including ventilation changes, air filters, and intake fans, she was moved to an apartment down the hall. Everything was fine – until more smokers moved in across the hall. "My doctor told me ... that I'd better move away from it or else," says Wilson.

As similar scenarios play out in apartment and condominium complexes across the country, they are resulting in a new frontier in antismoking policies: private dwellings.

Not only are some condos and apartment houses banning smoking inside private units, but there is talk in Belmont, Calif., of a city law next month that would mandate that all complexes keep a portion of their units smoke-free.

The war against smoking first ramped up in the 1980s when some of America's public buildings became smoke-free. Then, in the 1990s, a slew of restaurants and bars in US cities banned smoking.

Now, seniors are leading the way in the new battle in part because many live in communal environments and they feel they are susceptible to the health and safety hazards of smoking.

"The primary drive for smoke-free housing in America is coming from the elderly," says Jim Bergman, director of the Smoke-Free Environments Law Project in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Smoke-free policies in private dwellings are also taking hold because state and federal laws do not protect smokers in the same way that they protect people from discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and national origin, say experts. But banning a legal behavior in someone's own home is an intrusion of privacy that could set a dangerous precedent that, taken to extremes, could allow government to regulate too much in private life, opponents say.

Smoking can also be safety issue, particularly in close quarters, some say. "There is a great deal of growing interest in the senior housing community about senior smokers because seniors become forgetful and careless about smoking," says Serena Chen, policy director for the American Lung Association of California. Although cigarettes cause 10 percent of apartment fires, 40 percent of apartment fire deaths are attributed to smoking. Such fires cause death because they occur while more people are asleep.

Giving more teeth to the push is a finding in the US Surgeon General report last June that there are no safe levels of secondhand smoke. Last year, the California Air Resources Board declared secondhand smoke to be a toxic air contaminant on par with other industrial pollutants.

For their part, condo and apartment owners are beginning to realize the additional costs of getting units ready for new tenants after smokers have lived there.

Across the state of Michigan,12 of 132 housing commissions have banned smoking in multiunit apartments and condos in the past two years, Mr. Bergman says. Two-and-a-half years ago, no one could find a smoke-free apartment listing anywhere in the state; now there are more than 5,000, he says.

About two or three public housing commissions in Michigan are adopting smoke-free policies each month; elsewhere in the US, Bergman says, perhaps another one commission per month is doing the same. So far, that means that the public buildings owned and run by such commissions – such as Arlington Courts in Sault Ste. Marie – are taking such actions voluntarily.

But that could change next month in California. In Belmont, the city attorney and city council are expected to break new ground by passing a law that affects all public and private apartment and condominium owners in the city, requiring them to adopt smoke-free policies for a certain percentage of their units.

"Belmont will be watched nationally to see how far it goes in requiring apartment owners to have smoke-free policies," says Bergman. "Since no other city has passed a law requiring private apartment owners or condo associations to have a percentage of their units be smoke-free, this will be unique in the nation and other cities will seriously consider taking the step as well."

If Belmont's and Michigan's measures are being fueled in part by statistics showing that 80 percent of Americans don't smoke, they are also drawing ire from many among the 20 percent who do. Smokers wonder where they'll be allowed to smoke if new laws proliferate. Even top proponents of smoke-free policies question whether scientific evidence overstates the dangers of being exposed to secondhand smoke, and chases smokers into an ever-shrinking portion of the great outdoors.

"There really is no evidence that even a fleeting whiff of cigarette smoke will give you lung cancer, but that's how proponents of these policies seem to be advancing their cause," says Jacob Sullum, senior editor at Reason Magazine, who authored a book about the antismoking movement.

If smokers are banned from apartments and condos, parks, and other public spaces, the only space left for them to smoke will be single-family homes, a place where children reside. "The next angle we are going to see on this is how to protect children from respiratory problems in the home, and that is not the kind of place where I think the government ought to be intervening," says Mr. Sullum.

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