I came down with a mysterious case of bronchitis this weekend, and as I’ve been coughing and gasping for air, I noticed my building has smelled strongly of cigarette smoke since the beginning of the month. I did as I usually do, stuffing a towel under the door and lamenting that there’s nothing I can do about it. But why is that the case? Why do I pay a small fortune in rent each month to be poisoned by my neighbors? And more globally, why do we still tolerate smoking when it is a known public health risk?
The state of New York recognizes the dangers of secondhand smoke, and as a consequence passed legislation that makes all public housing smoke-free as of this July. But there are no ordinances or regulations that apply to privately-owned multi-unit residences with common air supplies, which is the type of apartment building that the vast majority of New Yorkers live in. The state of New York also runs advertisements suggesting you talk with your landlord about making your building smoke-free, but as might be expected, many landlords aren’t willing to risk potential income to make their existing tenants happy when they have units to fill. If you complain about smoking in the building, you’ll likely get the same answer my cousin recently did in New Jersey: there isn’t anything explicitly banning smoking in the lease, so there is nothing a landlord can do about it even if they wanted to.
Image via Medical News Today
The smokers I know shrug off their habit as just another vice, and they tend to ignore my protests that no, their habit can seriously harm other people. Secondhand smoke is a known carcinogen and leading cause of serious illnesses including COPD, emphysema, chronic bronchitis (ahem), and on and on. Smoking is uniquely different from drinking, overeating, or other indulgences because it inherently and automatically crosses the line from a private vice to one that is inflicted on others by being airborne. When as a society we determined drinking was harmful to others when those who drank got behind the wheel of a car, we outlawed drunk driving. Imagine if you started developing cirrhosis the first time your neighbor took a drink.
New York did the right thing in banning smoking in all enclosed workspaces in 2003, including bars and restaurants by 2004, but there is still a prevailing sense of, “You can do whatever you want in your own home,” as we think it’s not our business to complain about whatever our neighbors do. Except, that’s never really been true. It’s not legal to abuse children or animals in your home nor to run a heroin ring, nor to own ferrets in NYC, nor even to sell baked goods with melted chocolate out of your kitchen. The laws outside the home can – and must – apply inside, and that includes it not being legal to pollute the air around you with carcinogens. We have noise ordinances and trash/recycling laws, but nothing protecting nonsmokers from exposure to smoke in their homes. This isn’t a “nanny state” infringement on rights, but a serious public health risk, and it is high time we treat it that way.
Image by Peter Dazeley / Getty Images, via Time
I have been taking on the added costs of other people’s smoking for a long time now. After living in a house with heavy smokers in college (and suffering chronic sinus and respiratory infections while living there) I had to have surgery to remove scar tissue from my sinuses to be able to breathe through my nose again. I thought I was allergic to cats until I broke up with the surreptitiously-smoking boyfriend who sneaked cigarettes in our apartment and covered every surface with carcinogens and airborne irritants (extra bad for the cats, who lay on these surfaces and groomed themselves for thirdhand exposure and notably didn’t have the option to leave him). I can’t count how much time and money I’ve spent on extra health care (including over-the-counter drugs, doctor’s visits, and prescription drugs or steroids) for respiratory infections, bronchitis, and pneumonia (all brought on by or exacerbated by smoke), nor how many days of school or work I had to miss because I literally couldn’t breathe. Because I work from home, I am also about to invest in air purifiers with HEPA filters to try to protect myself a little bit more. But why am I bearing the negative health effects and financial burden of someone else’s toxic habit?
Why aren’t we taking better care of all the people in New York who have it far worse than me, with asthma, severe allergies, cystic fibrosis, emphysema, COPD, babies and children with still-developing respiratory systems, or who are immunocompromised from chemotherapy or autoimmune disorders? Why is it legal to fill the air they breathe in their homes with carcinogens? I don’t know many people who could afford to break a lease before its end to move away from smokers in their buildings, and even if they did, they have no control over who moves into a building after them. This is where the state needs to compel landlords to protect their tenants’ health from a well-established public health risk. Let smokers take on the extra costs in rent and hassle to find a designated smoking building, as they are the ones who choose a habit that is harmful to others.
I believe smoking should be banned in any multi-unit residential building with a shared air supply unless a waiver is signed by every resident to allow smoking in the building. This action should be coupled with an extension of the ban on smoking within 15 feet of public buildings to include the entrances of private buildings unless specifically marked. I have written to my senator with this request, and if you live in New York, I strongly encourage you to do the same.
And if you smoke, I am not as unsympathetic as I may seem. I understand it is an addiction once you start – cigarettes are literally designed to addict you – and it can feel impossible to quit even if you want to. The state has already set aside resources to help you, some of which you can find here, and I encourage you to quit as soon as you can. In the meantime, everyone is better off (including you) if no one smokes indoors anymore.