Tacoma group pushing for smoke-free apartments
ROB CARSON; Staff writer
In parody media source The Onion’s version on YouTube, a somber news anchor intones: “The nation’s anti-tobacco lobby won another victory today when Congress passed legislation restricting smoking to a single room in Iowa.”
Absurd? Sure. Yet restrictions on smokers continue.
In Washington, as elsewhere, the battle over secondhand smoke is moving from airplanes, bars and office buildings to an arena that once seemed impenetrable: private residences.
Next month, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Board members will consider a proposal to classify secondhand smoke as a “nuisance” in multi-unit housing.
The proposal, which backers want inserted into the state’s landlord-tenant law, is one of dozens of attempts in communities around the country to extend no-smoking restrictions from public places to rental housing.
“This is the last piece of the puzzle that needs to be placed,” said Nan Hogan of University Place, who helped write the proposed legislation. “We’ve got smoke-free motel rooms, smoke-free restaurants, smoke-free bars, smoke-free office buildings and even prisons. Why should we go home and have to breathe it there?”
Hogan is a member of the Pierce County group PUSH, for People United for Smoke-free Housing. They point out that in most multi-family structures there is no practical way to seal one apartment from another.
Smoke seeps through walls, around doors and through electrical outlets. Shared ventilation systems circulate the same air throughout all units without adequately filtering it.
PUSH isn’t asking the Board of Health to make any special rules in Pierce County. The group wants the board to pass the proposal, so PUSH then can use it as ammunition in its effort for a statewide law change during the next legislative session.
According to the state Department of Health, 86 percent of renters in Washington prefer smoke-free housing, including more than half of people who smoke.
Also, the Health Department says, every year in Washington about 500 children younger than age 5 get asthma from breathing secondhand smoke.
Smokers’ rights advocates tend to regard efforts to control smoking in rental apartments as unnecessary and an assault on private rights.
“This is political correctness run amok,” said Gary Nolan, U.S. director of the Citizens Freedom Alliance, which advocates for smokers’ rights. “They’re taking away the rights of the landlord. We have a republic, and they’re telling this guy what he can do with his private property. These people should be ashamed of themselves.”
Landlords have the right to declare their apartments smoke-free if they want to, Nolan said, and that’s the way things should remain.
“They can say on their own, ‘No smoking in any of our buildings,’” he said. “The free market has a way of working these things out.”
Nolan acknowledges that efforts to control smoking in apartments are gaining ground. Nationally, 27 local jurisdictions have passed ordinances limiting or prohibiting smoking altogether in multi-unit rentals, including eight cities in California.
Hogan said she was moved to join the cause by personal experience.
She and her husband lived for years in a West End Tacoma apartment building overlooking the Tacoma Narrows. Their lives changed, Hogan said, when a chain smoker moved into the apartment below them.
Hogan, who is 73 and has a history of bronchial problems, started wheezing.
“I had never even heard the term ‘secondhand smoke’ until then,” she said. “What astounded me was there was nothing I could do about it.”
PUSH wants to change the state’s landlord-tenant law by defining secondhand smoke as a nuisance. Destroying landlords’ property, engaging in gang activity and using drugs already are considered nuisances under the law.
In the scenario PUSH envisions, tenants bothered by smoke would follow the procedures already in place for other nuisances: If tenants create a nuisance, the landlord can give them three days’ notice to move out. If they don’t move, the landlord can go to court and start an eviction process.
The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and its board, which will look at the proposal at a study session Sept. 15, have historically taken the lead on anti-smoking issues.
The former Health Department director, Dr. Federico Cruz-Uribe, was an evangelist on the subject.
With the support of the health board, Cruz-Uribe banned most outside advertising of tobacco products in 1996, then created a furor in 2003 by banning smoking in most indoor public places, including the county’s bars, restaurants and bowling alleys.
The Washington State Supreme Court threw out Pierce County’s ban, but two years later it became the model for a successful statewide indoor smoking initiative.
The eight-member health board, which is made up primarily of City of Tacoma and Pierce County council members, sets broad public health policy for the city and county. The Health Department director reports to the board.
The department’s current director, Dr. Anthony Chen, is proceeding cautiously. He supports the idea of smoke-free apartments, but with some trepidation.
Reducing smoking is a huge priority for the Health Department, Chen said.
“Smoking is the No. 1 cause of death and is associated with just about every cancer known,” he said. “The effects of secondhand smoke are well-documented.”
But he worries that legislation that is not thoroughly thought out could have unintended consequences.
He said it could unfairly effect low-income people and minorities, groups more likely to be smokers and also more likely to be renters. He also worries that apartment owners could be hurt financially.
“Particularly in this economy, that could end up having a negative impact on the overall health of the community,” Chen said.
The social justice argument does not sway Scott Neal, manager of the tobacco-use prevention program at Public Health-Seattle & King County.
“Whenever the topic of smoke-free housing comes up, you always have somebody bring up that argument,” Neal said. “The way we look at it is, that’s actually a good thing.”
The fact that smokers are more likely to be renters means this is a good way to reach them, he said.
“We know that creating smoke-free environments helps people quit smoking,” he said. “When a landlord creates a smoke-free apartment, it doesn’t mean that people have to be evicted. It just means they have to alter their behavior.”
And, while some apartment owners worry about losing tenants or having to enforce no-smoking rules, others enthusiastically support new smoke-free rules.
In a 2007 survey of apartment owners and managers conducted by the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, 82 percent of respondents said a smoke-free policy would provide positive benefits. The top three benefits were decreased cleaning costs, less cigarette trash on the property and less risk of fire.
Smoke-free apartments are cheaper to clean between tenants, they say; carpets and curtains don’t have to be replaced, painting needs doing less often.
“If a smoker lived in a place, you can do as much cleaning as you want, but there’s still the scent of smoke inside of it,” said Chelsea Tornga, manager of the 40-unit Oasis Apartments on Delin Street in Tacoma. “The residue from smoke sticks to the walls, so you have to repaint. The smell stays in the carpets.”
Smokers are a leading cause of apartment fires, so owners’ liability insurance premiums often go down when they go smoke-free.
Seattle and King County have taken a collaborative approach rather than adopting any sort of “thou-shalt” position on apartment smoking, Neal said.
One of their most effective tools, he said, is education.
“A lot of landlords think no-smoking policies are illegal,” Neal said. “We let them know that’s not the case. Making their property smoke-free is a decision that’s entirely up to them; it’s like a pet policy.”
When tenants call the Health Department to complain about smokers in their building, Neal said, public health workers visit the landlord, carrying educational material.
“We take as much information as we can,” he said. “We even have a booklet that talks landlords through the process of establishing smoke-free housing.”
The point is not getting smokers to leave, Neal said; it’s getting them to quit smoking.
“What we tell landlords is, when you go smoke-free, make sure you have the support there for the people who do want to quit,” he said. “You don’t want to leave them hanging.”
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693 email@example.com