MHN Interview: Encouraging Smoke-Free Buildings in NYC

By Jessica Fiur, News Editor
MHN Online, May 29, 2013

New York-Smoking is a hot-button issue when it comes to apartments. Cigarettes can cause a lot of damage to an apartment-not to mention the health risk-which is causing a lot of buildings to go smoke-free. MHN speaks to Rachelle Rochelle, borough manager of the Brooklyn Smoke-Free Partnership, part of the NYC Coalition for a Smoke-Free City, about how the Coalition educates property managers about why they should consider going smoke-free in their buildings.

MHN: What is the Coalition, and what are its goals?

Rochelle: The Coalition was funded by the New York State Bureau of Tobacco Control, as well as the CDC. It is a program of public health solutions, and the Coalition itself is made up of five borough partnerships. I manage the Brooklyn team. We focus on three campaign areas: the first is reducing youth exposure to tobacco marketing, like when kids go into a pharmacy or a bodega and they see a wall of cigarettes. The second is we work tobacco-free outdoor areas-we don’t do as much work on that because smoke-free parks and beaches passed in the city a few years ago. We also do a lot advocacy and education around the importance of reducing exposure to second-hand smoke, and that leads to our third area, which is voluntary smoke-free housing. Our mission is to promote a tobacco-free society that benefits the health of New York City residents.

MHN: What do you do when you’re in a building? Do you talk to the property manager about why residents shouldn’t smoke, or is it more talking directly to the residents, or is it trying to change policy?

Rochelle: We’re for voluntary smoke-free housing, so we’re not going in trying to change policy, and we’re not working to implement any policy throughout the city or the state. We’re about education. Now New Yorkers are protected against the effects of second-hand smoke in their workplace, which is great. What we’re finding is more and more people are exposed in the home, and that’s a particular risk for children and the elderly. The Surgeon General has come out stating there is absolutely no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke-it’s a class-A carcinogen, and it has all sorts of bad things in it that you don’t want to be breathing in.

One of the reasons that it’s especially important to focus on smoke-free housing in New York City is that we have the highest concentration of multi-unit buildings. In New York City, 70 percent of homes are in a multi-unit building. So we started with this education plan. First it was just outreaching to property owners of condos and co-ops. The direction we’ve gone is originally contacting property owners, because those are actually the people who can make change. Smokers are not a protected class, according to federal law. So we outreach to properties to see if there’s an interest, and then we go in with management and staff and make a presentation about why to go smoke-free. We’d love everyone to go smoke-free because of the health of the residents, but when it comes down to it, that’s not going to be the case for every property owner. You have to talk about money, and you have to talk about other things that are important to them. There was a study in New England that said it is six times more costly to rehabilitate or turn over a smoker’s apartment. They said it averaged $500 to turn over a non-smoker’s apartment vs. $3,500 for a smoker’s.

Our goal is to decrease people’s exposure to second-hand smoke, but we have to get at that at different ways, and one of those ways is that it will save you money. Additionally, it really does reduce the risk of fire. In New York City, cigarette smoking is the leading cause of fires in multi-unit buildings, as well as the leading cause of death in New York City. These are things that people don’t always think of in connection with smoking in the home.

MHN: What damage besides fire can be done to apartments if residents smoke?

Rochelle: There can be burns in the floorboards, burns in the carpeting. You’d have to replace the fans in the bathrooms and sometimes the fan in the stove because the tar in the chemicals builds up in layers and layers. You might also have to paint or re-caulk. The smoke gets into everything! And after someone moves out, it can take months and months to get that smell out of the way, and it’s often third-hand smoke-those dangerous particles that are still left over. In the New England study I mentioned earlier, it was $170 to repaint a non-smoking unit. In a heavy smoker’s unit, it took $480 worth of paint, because you have to paint it four or five times over. That really resonates with a lot of landlords.

MHN: What is the general reaction from residents?

Rochelle: We’re really about education, and it’ll only work if you have buy-in from your residents. We have a conversation with the property owner or the condo board or the shareholders, and we recommend sending out a survey to the residents to get the conversation started and to see how many smokers you have. Often time, smokers choose to not to smoke in the home because they either have kids or they don’t like the smell of it afterwards, etc. You can find out a lot of information by reaching out to the residents.
We’re doing some work with supportive housing, and that category has been a little different, but for market-rate apartments, we find that usually about 80 to 90 percent of residents are in favor of going smoke-free. What that means is, smokers can live in the building; what you’re doing is limiting where people can light their cigarettes.

MHN: You mentioned that smokers are not a protected class. But what happens if a landlord makes the building smoke free, and then smells smoke in someone’s apartment? Is their only course of action to have no smoking built in the lease to begin with, or is there anything else they can do?
Rochelle: We have sample language for a lease addendum. But it depends on the type of landlord or property owner that you work with, and every property is different. What we do recommend is having something written, whether it’s a three-strikes rule or a small fine, so people understand. We’ve found that works in most of the buildings. We don’t want to give landlords any more reasons to evict residents. This is not an eviction policy; we want to protect people’s health. The biggest thing is getting residents and staff on board, and training them in the beginning.

MHN: What about in condos, where you can’t necessarily inspect the units?

Rochelle: We have a condo guide. We don’t find as much detailed inspection, and you don’t have to catch them in the act. You write the policy very clear so guests can’t smoke on site. You can tell if you smell second-hand smoke, so the property manager would have to investigate that. It’s not an exact science. It’s more the overall education of the residents.

MHN: In some states, medical marijuana is legal, and in New York it might become legal. Will the Coalition cover this in any of its education? Would the policies be the same as they are for tobacco smoke?

Rochelle: Definitely. I think we can learn from states that have this already, such as Washington and Colorado. Additionally, there are tons of forms of medical marijuana-there are cookies, and all that kind of stuff. Of course, you want them to get relief from their pain. I think we’d definitely reach out to other smoke-free advocacy groups and see how they’ve dealt with that.

MHN: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Rochelle: There’s a new focus on the home as a place where health can begin, and I see it as a comprehensive thing, whether that’s living where you have access to healthy food, or a mold-free home or a smoke-free home. When it comes to smoke-free and health aspects, it’s really looking at a comprehensive approach. There are things you can do to increase health aspects in the home.

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