If you live in an apartment or condominium, cigarette smoke can easily seep into your home.
It can sift in through the ventilation system or open windows.
Or the space between the water pipes.
Or even the electrical outlets.
The ease in which secondhand smoke travels, and the dangers it brings with it, is the impetus behind the latest campaign to crack down on smoking in multi-unit housing.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the clarion call last week, saying people who live in apartments, townhouses, and condominiums are disproportionately affected by neighbors who smoke.
“People are being exposed in a variety of places,” Brian King, Ph.D., deputy director for research translation in the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health, told Healthline.
The CDC recommended a multipronged attack to reduce smoking in multi-unit complexes, a plan that includes education and local regulations.
“Everybody should be able to breathe clean air in their homes,” Erika Sward, assistant vice president of national advocacy for the American Lung Association, told Healthline. “Secondhand smoke kills.”
The smoking numbers
The CDC’s action agenda is based on a study it published last week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The study concluded that 34 percent of multi-unit housing residents who have smoke-free policies in their homes have been exposed to secondhand smoke from a nearby unit.
In addition, researchers estimated that 25 percent of adults who live in multi-unit housing use a tobacco product.
About 20 percent use a combustible tobacco product, compared with 14 percent of single-family home dwellers.
In addition, 81 percent of multi-unit living quarters have smoke-free rules, compared to 87 percent of single-family homes.
Health officials also noted that people in multi-unit housing tend to have less access to quality healthcare services than people who live in detached homes.
Overall, they said, secondhand smoke kills 41,000 people a year and costs $5.6 billion annually in lost productivity.
The problem for apartment and condo residents, they said, is that those residents can do everything correctly to keep their home smoke-free and still be exposed.
How easily smoke travels varies from complex to complex, depending on its design and environmental factors.
However, health officials said as few as one or two smokers can impact every corner of a 20-unit apartment building.
The American Lung Association has produced a video that details how smoke travels through buildings.
“Secondhand smoke many times is not the choice of the people around it,” Amy Lukowski, Psy.D., clinical director of health initiatives programs at National Jewish Health. “Yet, they’re being exposed to something that is very harmful.”
What can be done
The CDC is recommending what King described as a “multifaceted approach” to reduce smoking in multi-unit housing.
The first step is better education for apartment and condominium residents on the dangers of smoking and the risks of breathing secondhand smoke.
The second step is to encourage the owners of multi-unit housing complexes to voluntarily impose smoke-free rules in their buildings.
Health officials said this would make their properties more attractive to potential residents and cut down on the costs of cleaning carpets, drapes, and other items when a smoker vacates a unit.
The third is to convince local authorities to approve regulations that prohibit smoking in multi-unit complexes. In California, 22 municipalities have already done so.
For the past half decade, officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have encouraged public housing authorities, as well as the owners and managers of public assisted housing, to adopt smoke-free policies.
A 2013 CDC study estimated that if smoking were eliminated in public housing projects it would save $520 million annually in healthcare costs, renovation expenses, and fire losses.
Sward said the public housing campaign is also important because many times residents in these complexes can’t afford to move if they are being affected by secondhand smoke.
“They don’t have the capacity to move,” she said. “This is protecting our nation’s most vulnerable people.”
For everyone’s health
The smoke-free campaign, health officials say, is for everyone’s benefit.
That starts with the smokers. Health officials reason if it’s more difficult for someone to smoke, it might make it easier for them to quit.
“The focus of the campaign is to keep buildings smoke-free,” said Sward. “It’s not to drive smokers from their homes.”
The campaign, in particular, protects children, who usually don’t have a say in where they live.
“Tobacco use is really a pediatric problem,” noted Lukowski.
Even the nation’s second largest tobacco company offered some support.
In response to a request for an interview, officials at R.J. Reynolds sent an email to Healthline that stated smokers should avoid exposing children to secondhand smoke as well as obey all smoking regulations.
“The best course of action for tobacco consumers concerned about their health is to quit,” said David Howard, spokesperson for R.J. Reynolds, in the email. “Adults who continue to use tobacco products should consider the reductions of risks for serious diseases associated with moving from cigarettes to the use of smoke-free tobacco or nicotine products.”
Howard said the recommendations are part of the company’s commitment to discuss health issues related to tobacco use.