Blair Horner: The Next Frontier in Tobacco Control

Cigarettes cause cancer.  Each pack has a warning label that tells us that.  Tobacco smoke not only hurts the smoker, but the smoke also harms non-smokers.  That’s the reason why laws were passed banning smoking in all work places and public places. 

But what about people who live in apartments, or condos, or coops?  Eighty-five percent of New Yorkers don’t smoke and less than 10% smoke inside their homes.  Even though the percentage of at-home smokers is small, in some buildings cigarette smoke can move quickly between apartments via cracks in the wall, ceilings and floors, through electrical outlets, and under doors.  

Air quality monitoring studies have detected elevated levels of harmful particulates in nonsmokers’ apartments when occupants are smoking in another unit.  A building’s ventilation system and whether windows and doors are open impacts the amount of exposure people in neighboring apartments have to secondhand smoke.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, there is no safe level of secondhand smoke exposure.  So, inhaling tobacco smoke is not safe for anyone, but it is more than annoying for some.  Tobacco smoke can exacerbate asthma and increase the risk of heart disease and lung cancer, and some people with chronic health conditions are particularly susceptible.

For example, children and the elderly are more vulnerable to the effects of secondhand smoke and also spend more time at home.  Studies have demonstrated that children with parents who don’t smoke in the home and live in apartments have, on average, 45% higher cotinine levels (the chemical which results from inhaling tobacco smoke) than those living in detached homes.  Air quality monitoring studies have detected elevated levels of harmful particulates in nonsmoker’s apartments during active smoking in a nearby apartment.

Children who are exposed to second-hand smoke because they live with smokers have increased risk for asthma attacks, reduced cardiovascular function, respiratory infections, ear infections, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

So what should be done?  New York City Mayor Bloomberg has proposed a law to help apartment dwellers.  The Bloomberg proposal requires landlords to provide a disclosure form to tenants and apartment purchasers stating the building’s smoking policy before a lease or sale is finalized.  It is similar to laws that have been passed in Maine, Oregon, and several localities including the city of Buffalo and the county of Rockland.  

The plan does not restrict smoking in private residences but enables all residents, including smokers and non-smokers, to know a building’s smoking policy before deciding where to live.

The Mayor’s plan gives tenants the information they need to choose the best housing situation for themselves and their families.  In short, would-be tenants would now have the opportunity to decide if they want to live in buildings that allow smoking and if it does, what the policy of the building is.

The plan also helps landlords.  Landlords may save money on maintenance, reduced vacancy time, insurance premiums, and other costs associated with smoking. Marriott Hotels, for instance, has reported that adopting smoke-free policies system-wide led to a 30% reduction in energy use for their air treatment system.  Insurance companies have begun to offer reduced insurance rates for smoke-free buildings.  Real estate professionals also say that smoking within apartments can significantly lower resale values.

The plan is a “win-win” for tenants and landlords. 

In Buffalo and Rockland there was little opposition to the disclosure requirement.  Whether that will be the case in New York City is not clear.  But what is clear is that the health rights of 85 percent need to be protected.  And the health rights of the rest of New York should be protected too.

Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division.  His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.

 The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.