Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Won't you be my (smoke-free) neighbor?

Anti-tobacco advocates have conquered restaurants and bars, public outdoor spaces and many college campuses. Now, they’ve got their sights set on engaging residents of apartment buildings and condominium complexes in efforts to make healthier living spaces.

There’s a growing movement across the country to enact smoking bans in multi-unit housing, and California is leading the charge. The communities of South Pasadena, Richmond, Belmont and Sebastopol have all prohibited smoking in apartment buildings and condos. And there seems to be more on the way.

“It’s a public health issue," said Statice Wilmore, tobacco control coordinator for the Pasadena Public Health Department. "It’s a quality of life issue.”

Wilmore spoke yesterday on a panel with other anti-tobacco advocates during a session on “Don’t Catch My Drift: Smoke-free Multi-Unit Dwellings.”

Wilmore gave an overview of how Pasadena succeeded in prohibiting smoking on patios, balconies and outdoor common areas in multi-unit housing. The Pasadena Public Health Department also was pivotal in establishing smoking bans in new housing construction projects effective immediately. Most importantly, the department successfully advocated for a gradual phase-in of completely smoke-free multi-unit housing by 2013.

Pasadena’s smoke-free campaign began with a comprehensive survey of the community’s attitudes toward smoking. The survey revealed that 77 percent of the community supported prohibiting smoking in outdoor areas; 63 percent supported a smoking ban in residential areas; 80 percent favored laws to create non-smoking multi-unit housing; and 72 percent wanted to live in a completely smoke-free building.

“Framing the issue is very important,” Wilmore said.

Instead of focusing on individual health benefits of smoke-free policies, the public health department presented other benefits, such as a reduction in fire hazards in the home, decreasing insurance premiums and decreased expenses for landlords to clean out smokers’ units for rental purposes.

In a pilot test conducted in a small part of Alachua County, Fla., Lisa Nackers, a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida in Gainesville, found that residents preferred an incremental, stepwise policy change toward going smoke-free in multi-unit housing. That process would start with smoking bans in indoor common areas, then in outdoor common areas and on to individual units until a total ban on smoking is reached. This “foot-in-the-door” technique has the potential to affect policy change throughout the county, she said.

“We all know there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke,” Nackers told session attendees. “And we know that most exposure is in the homes.”

Nackers’ research suggests that anti-tobacco advocates work closely with multi-unit housing property managers to implement policy changes. As tenants and building owners’ awareness increase, smoke-free dwellings will be the way of the future, she said. In fact, property owners should offer smoke-free units as a benefit of living in their buildings.

Warren Ortland, staff attorney with the Public Health Law Center in St. Paul, Minn., surveyed owner-occupants and interviewed property managers, finding that before drafting any policy, advocates should first provide education to all parties and assess attitudes toward the policy. Policies should be based on the activity — smoking — and not on any individual’s status, a position often taken by smokers who believe bans infringe on their personal rights.

Ortland suggests residential associations take up smoking bans and decide for themselves how to best implement them. Changing associations’ declarations are more likely to withstand legal challenges, he noted, and courts are generally deferential to association decisions.

— L.R.

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