San Antonio Housing Authority to ban smoking indoors and outdoor

To the list of places where smokers no longer will be able to light up — government buildings, parks, restaurants and bars — public housing residents in San Antonio soon will add one more: their own homes.

The San Antonio Housing Authority plans to impose a new policy in January that will prohibit residents from smoking indoors or away from designated outdoor spots at all 70 of its public sites.

The ban, which will affect about 15,800 residents, aims to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke and follows a growing nationwide trend to eliminate smoking at public housing authorities.

Since 2009, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a directive that “strongly” encouraged housing authorities to adopt nonsmoking policies, the number of agencies that have banned the practice has more than doubled to an estimated 250, according to the Smoke Free Environments Law Project, a Michigan nonprofit that tracks the number.

San Antonio will become the biggest housing authority in Texas and one of the largest in the country to adopt a smoking ban, joining other major agencies in Boston, Detroit, Portland and Seattle.

“It’s our responsibility to provide a living environment that’s healthy, safe and comfortable and, frankly, your neighbor’s smoke can often impair that,” said Melanie Villalobos, a spokeswoman for SAHA.

The no-smoking rule will debut here in August or September at the newly renovated Lewis Chatham Apartments, a single, four-story building for the elderly on the South Side.

SAHA’s other properties are expected to go smoke-free in January, but the details of how the new policy will work at each site, including the locations of designated smoking areas, remain undetermined.

Residents will be prohibited from smoking within about 20 feet of exterior doorways, and those who repeatedly violate the rule could face eviction.

The housing authority began putting out the word about the new policy earlier this year, opening the discussion at resident meetings and surveying tenants.

Later this month, the housing authority plans to launch an educational campaign about the hazards of smoking and secondhand smoke. Residents who want to quit the habit also can get free smoking-cessation aids such as patches and lozenges, provided through the agency’s partnership with the American Cancer Society.

The housing authority put off a planned start date in July after studying how other agencies had dealt with the issue. Among the most important lessons was that residents were more agreeable to the change if they had time to prepare and received health information.

“The education campaign is the most important part,” said Lori Mendez, the housing director for the elderly and disabled who has spearheaded the effort. “Residents need to understand the expectations.”

Kids exposed to smoke

Many residents have yet to hear about the change, but so far the new policy has inspired a mix of strong support, ambivalence and anger.

A survey sent to all 6,029 households in January shows that a large majority of tenants support the no-smoking policy. Of the 200 residents who responded, 81 percent said they liked the idea, while 17 percent opposed it, and 2 percent said they had no opinion.

In some cases, smokers decried what they view as a violation of their rights.

“This is my house even though I’m receiving help from SAHA, and I should be able to smoke in my own home if I want to,” one resident wrote.

Another resident who smokes on the balcony suggested forcing residents to go outside would put them at risk.

“It’s dangerous enough at daytime. Understand that you will be putting people’s lives in danger,” the tenant wrote.

But many cheered the idea, and some smokers even welcomed the change as an inducement to help them quit.

Recent studies have shown secondhand smoke migrates into apartments through vents and air ducts.

According to a study published online in the medical journal Pediatrics in December, children who live in multifamily housing are exposed to secondhand smoke at greater levels than children living in detached houses, even in cases when no one smoked in their apartment.

The surgeon general has ruled that no level of exposure to tobacco smoke is safe. Every year, secondhand smoke causes an estimated 46,000 deaths from heart disease among non-smoking adults in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And about 3,400 adults who don’t smoke die annually from lung cancer caused by secondhand smoke, the agency says.

In public housing, the benefits of smoke-free homes may be more pronounced. Low-income children face higher rates of asthma and about 30 percent of adults smoke, compared with about 20 percent of those who live above the poverty level, said Donna White, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Nationally, public housing is home to more than 1.2 million residents, including large numbers of children and elderly, with about 39 percent of tenants younger than 18, and 15 percent older than 62.

Rey Ramirez, president of the resident council at Westway Apartments on Culebra Road, said his elderly grandmother, who suffered from severe asthma and used an oxygen tank, had to contend with heavy secondhand smoke from a downstairs neighbor before she left the apartments because of health troubles.

“You can smell it — it’s very, very strong,” Ramirez said. “It’s just common sense to get rid of it.”

Smoke-free trend

The crackdown in public housing coincides with a stricter anti-smoking city ordinance that takes effect in August and prohibits smoking in all bars, restaurants and public places, including parks and bus stops.

It also comes at a time of increasingly aggressive public health initiatives launched by Mayor Julián Castro, who has overseen the city’s new B-cycle bike share program and created a Fitness Council to look at new ways to encourage healthy living and spend $15.6 million in federal stimulus funds intended to reduce childhood obesity.

The national trend to go smoke-free in public housing puts agencies like SAHA at the forefront of a broader movement to take the fight against tobacco smoke into the private sphere.

Consumer demand for nonsmoking homes continues to rise, and more private landlords are learning that smoking bans make good business sense, said Jim Bergman, director of Smoke-Free Environments Law Project.

“Apartment owners are now recognizing that nonsmokers make up 80 (percent) to 85 percent of the adult population, and many smokers also don’t smoke in their apartments because they don’t want their clothes to smell,” Bergman said.

In recent years, about 10 to 15 local governments in California have joined the movement, banning smoking in private apartment developments in their municipalities, he said.

California is the only state where local governments have adopted such ordinances. In Texas, few private landlords — less than 5 percent by Bergman’s estimate — have gone to smoke-free apartments.

Health benefits for residents are the driving force behind the new restrictions, but non-smoking policies also reduce the risk of fires and offer financial perks.

Housing authorities can save more than six times the turnover costs to clean stained walls and window blinds and repair ducts and carpets damaged by cigarettes, according to a 2009 poll of housing authorities by Smoke-Free Housing New England. The cost of rehabilitating a nonsmoking unit is about $560, compared with about $1,810 for a light smoking unit and $3,515 where there was heavy smoking, the poll found.

But not everyone is convinced the housing authority will see much savings or success with the policy.

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