Landlords lead push to ban smoking at home
Mass. activists sidestep fray
When apartment dwellers in Belmont, Calif., complained about cigarette fumes from down the hall, the City Council sprang into action on their behalf, outlawing smoking in apartments and condos and threatening to ticket violators.
When tobacco-control activists in Massachusetts embraced the same cause, they made a tactical decision that seemed surprisingly meek in a state long recognized for its prohibitions against harmful habits: They rejected the idea of governmental regulation.
It was one thing, they figured, for lawmakers to banish smoking from restaurants and bars. It was something else entirely to deploy city or state laws to prevent apartment tenants and condo owners from smoking in their own homes.
So, instead, they are leaving it to market forces, convinced that the supply side - landlords - will listen to the demand side - nonsmoking tenants - and adopt smoke-free rules.
It appears to be working.
"Now renting! Smoke-free apartment living" trumpets a banner billowing from a blocklong apartment house rising in the shadow of TD Banknorth Garden. And a soon-to-be-released survey from Northeastern University shows broad support for smoke-free living among tenants, a finding that activists plan to share in coming months with landlords, tenants, and condo boards.
"This isn't government shoving it down the tenants' throat," said Jim Bergman, who directs the Smoke-Free Environments Law Project, which tracks the movement nationally. "When you start putting restrictions on where people can smoke in their home, even if it's a rental home, they might feel that's an infringement of their rights in a greater way than having smoke-free workplaces."
Still, even this more gentle strategy is sure to rankle some smokers, who complain of being branded as pariahs.
Stephen Helfer, who has fought on behalf of smokers' rights for years, said there is nothing subtle about efforts that he argues will further marginalize the poor and the mentally ill, who smoke at rates higher than the state average.
"I think they're trying to almost blackmail landlords into doing this," said Helfer, who lives in a Cambridge condo where smoking is allowed. "The reason they are not trying to regulate it is because they feel they don't have the political will right now. But make no mistake: They're going after us in our homes."
In many respects, the home represents the final frontier of tobacco control.
Two decades ago, airlines and hospitals stood at the vanguard of campaigns to reduce smoking. Eventually, cigarettes, cigars, and pipes vanished from most offices, too. And, then, lawmakers on the West Coast, in the Northeast, and even in some tobacco-growing states, prohibited tobacco use in bars and restaurants.
That left the home as the last indoor refuge for tobacco users in states such as Massachusetts and California. It also made the home the next logical target for tobacco-control advocates.
And the reasons for wanting to bar smoking in apartments and condos are strikingly similar to those advanced in earlier campaigns for tobacco bans.
"People say, 'I'm not being exposed to smoke at work anymore,' and then they come home and they're exposed all night from someone else at the opposite end of the building, and they have no way to escape it," said Christopher Banthin, an attorney working with Northeastern's Public Health Advocacy Institute.
In the California city, apartment tenants complained of smoke drifting under doors and cascading from air vents, triggering asthma attacks. An octogenarian who led the drive in the San Francisco suburb said there was no escape from his neighbors' habit.
And those claims were bolstered by a 2006 report from the US surgeon general that concluded that even passing exposure to someone else's cigarette smoke can prove perilous.
"People have criticized us and said this is a nanny state issue," said former Belmont City Council member David Warden, who championed the regulation, which can result in a $100 fine for scofflaw smokers. "A nanny state to me is when you have laws that try to protect you from yourself.
"The intent here is to protect people from other people's behavior."
Last summer, Banthin's institute conducted a telephone survey of more than 1,300 apartment and condo residents in 11 Massachusetts cities and towns, including Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville, and the Jamaica Plain section of Boston.
The survey, underwritten by the state Department of Public Health, found that three-fourths of residents whose buildings were not smoke-free either supported immediate implementation of a ban or were neutral. And 43 percent were willing to pay more to live in such a building.
Landlords, in a less scientifically reliable mail-in survey, also demonstrated enthusiasm for smoking bans - in no small part because landlords insist it can cost thousands of dollars to restore carpets and paint in units occupied by smokers. And condo boards that go smoke-free cite a lower fire risk and, potentially, reduced insurance costs.
The Mount Vernon Co., which owns apartment buildings on such tony corridors as Commonwealth Avenue and Newbury Street, was among the first to ban smoking. The policy, said Bruce A. Percelay, company chairman, reflects his own distaste for smoking and the economic benefits of going smoke-free.
"The question you may raise then is, why don't more landlords do this?" Percelay said. "I believe that a lot of people think it's illegal, but smokers are not a protected class. You cannot discriminate on the basis of race, color, creed, or national origin, but they didn't include smokers in that."
In fact, Banthin said courts have repeatedly affirmed the right of landlords and condo boards to prevent smoking anywhere in their buildings.
In Chelsea, the owners of Parkside Commons Apartment Homes tout the virtues of smoke-free living right next to other amenities listed on a website. In Boston, Archstone Avenir's 241 smoke-free apartments won't be ready for occupancy until the summer, but already, the sprawling building across from TD Banknorth Garden is generating unusually strong demand.
"This far out from occupancy, it's rare to have any leases, and we have 20," said Sally Matheu, an Archstone group vice president.
Bruce Winterton has lived in one of Mount Vernon's buildings for three years. He moved from New York, where the smoke of downstairs neighbors wafted up during the summer.
Winterton said the smoke-free status of his Back Bay apartment - along with other amenities - made him more amenable to paying a loftier rent than he had expected. Still, he said, it's one thing for a landlord to impose a ban. But a government prohibition?
"It seems odd to me to have some significant, formal regulation that prevents you from doing something in your house," Winterton said. "I think it becomes a slippery slope."
Stephen Smith can be reached at email@example.com.