ELIZABETHTOWN – Ernest Watts is the southeastern N.C. Tobacco Lead, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-funded program through the N.C Tobacco Prevention Branch, and he announced at March’s Healthy Bladen Collaborative meeting that Bladen County is one of the leading counties in the state in terms of the number of housing complexes with smoking policies, with 91 percent of private low-income housing units having some sort of policy.
“The policy can range from not being able to smoke around the pool to a campus-wide smoke-free policy,” Watts said. “There are a lot of variations to the policies, including which tobacco products are used.”
Lest smokers in public housing get too comfortable, Watts said that changes are coming down the pipeline for them as well.
“Since 2009, HUD has strongly encouraged Public Housing Agencies (PHAs) to adopt smoke-free buildings,” said Watts. “The next step is a smoke-free rule that proposes that, no later than 18 months from the effective date of the final rule, each PHA must implement a policy prohibiting lit tobacco products in all living units, indoor common areas in public housing, and in PHA administrative office buildings.”
Stevie Craig, executive director of the Elizabethtown, Bladenboro and Clarkton housing authorities, affirmed the inevitableness of the changes.
“HUD has been talking about this for a few years, but they have left it up to the Housing Authorities,” she said. “It is my understanding that this is going to be a mandatory issue. We’re just waiting on the final publications to come out.”
In an age of “I have rights, and don’t you dare try to take them away,” Watts has a ready answer for smokers faced with the possibility of being denied the right to puff away their health in their rented home.
“There is no legal or constitutional right to smoke, and no court has ever recognized smoking as a protected right,” he said. “Additionally, there is no federal, state, or local law that prevents a landlord, housing authority, or condominium association from adopting a 100 percent smoke free policy.”
Just as a homeowner has the right to dictate that their guests not smoke in their home, the owners of housing complexes have the right to deny the activity in and on their property, according to the Smoke Free Environmental Law Project.
Perhaps the new changes in smoking policies have come about as a result of the plethora of studies and statistics that have been released pointing to the negative effects of smoking on the health of both smokers and those around them. Most people are familiar with second-hand smoke, but emerging research has pointed to another possible degree of danger.
Dr. Jonathan Winickoff, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, coined the term thirdhand smoke in 2009 to refer to the effects of smoking on cultured human cells and animals and thought to transfer to children and adults.
“Thirdhand smoke is the toxic contamination that remains after the cigarette is extinguished,” Winickoff explained. “It coats surfaces, remains in homes where smoking has occurred – even long after it’s ceased – and then gets re-emitted into the air through what’s called off-gassing.”
People are exposed to thirdhand smoke in three ways. First, just as you can smell it, you can inhale it, Winickoff said.
“Material that remains and coats every surface in an indoor environment where a cigarette is smoked, comes back off that surface…and then get breathed in.”
The second way people, particularly young children, are exposed to thirdhand smoke is by ingesting it. For example, babies crawling on the floor or on the couch touch the residue and put their hands in their mouths.
Third, leftover thirdhand toxins from smoking, like from a sticky couch arm, can be absorbed through the skin in the same way a nicotine patch works.
“It turns out nicotine goes through the skin and into the bloodstream, and the same phenomenon happens in places where people use a cigarette or an e-cigarette,” Winickoff said.
Perhaps, though, the motivation for the policies has as much to do with good business sense as it does with health concerns.
“Smoke permeates anything fibrous,” stated Watts. “When you look at the upkeep costs, you’re talking about replacing sheetrock and carpet every two years as opposed to every seven years, so it’s financially advantageous to the rentin company.”
Through a smoke-free rule, he said, it is estimated that PHAs will save an average of between $16 million and $38 million per year in property damage. A 2014 CDC study estimated the annual cost savings associated with banning smoking in public and subsidized housing to be $153 million.
Over 100,000 fires over the past thirty years could have been prevented by no-smoking policies, and 500 deaths and close to half a billion dollars in direct property damage could have been saved by the same.
Regardless of the motivation, health educators and rental companies can agree on one thing.
“It’s definitely a good thing,” said Craig. “It may be problematic when we’re trying to implement it, but things will work out eventually.”
“I think it’s a huge win that Bladen County has such great coverage,” he said. “National progress is being made to reduce the influence of tobacco products, but Bladen County is far ahead of the curb with smoke free and tobacco free housing.”
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.