Tobacco Prevention Experts: The San Diego Smoke-Free Project Never Gives Up

Living in an apartment next to a neighbor who smokes can be a nightmare. Imagine waking up at night or having breakfast when the neighbor’s smoke intrudes into your home, disturbing your slumber or bowl of cereal. This is not only frustrating, but it is a serious health hazard. However, this is a situation many people face when they live in multiunit housing without comprehensive smoking bans. 

Funded by the California Tobacco Prevention Program, the San Diego Smoke-Free Project is working to improve the health of San Diego County residents living in multiunit housing affected by tobacco smoke. We talked with several staff members of the project, which is a part of the nonprofit organization Social Advocates for Youth (SAY) San Diego, to learn more about the group’s work.

“There are so many people who live in these apartments that can’t move out,” said one San Diego Smoke-Free Project staff member who has advocated for smoke-free housing throughout San Diego for 14 years and tobacco control for another 10. She emphasized how children and the elderly are more susceptible to the health impacts of tobacco smoke exposure, including coughing and other asthma-like symptoms, and these groups, especially those facing poverty, may have less control over where they live. She pointed out that people who are suffering from tobacco smoke exposure and want to move out may not have the means to move somewhere else.

Tobacco Smoke Makes Multiunit Housing Unhealthy 

In apartment communities that allow smoking, residents who smoke expose residents who do not to toxic tobacco pollutants. Some of these tobacco pollutants are secondhand smoke, such as exhaled smoke or smoke coming from a lit cigarette. Other pollutants are thirdhand smoke, the chemical residue left behind after someone smokes. Thirdhand smoke residue can build up in units where residents smoke as well as units impacted by secondhand smoke. Because of this, a resident can still face tobacco-related health issues in apartments that allow smoking even if the resident does not smoke.

Not surprisingly then, promoting smoke-free multiunit housing is a big part of what the San Diego Smoke-Free Project does, one of the staff members said.

Challenges Make Creating Smoke-free Policies Difficult

One staff member pointed out that ending smoking in multi-unit housing is a complex issue because to protect all residents from second- and thirdhand smoke, the entire apartment property must be 100% smoke-free, including indoor and outdoor common areas, inside units, and private balconies. This means property managers and others enforcing a smoke-free policy must tell residents that they cannot smoke inside their own private units. However, some people having mixed feelings about telling others what they can and cannot do in their own homes. In addition, without a city, county, or state ordinance legally banning smoking in multi-unit housing, many smoke-free policies that property managers establish are voluntary. This means property- managers decide on a property-to-property basis of how to implement policies, which can lead to noncomprehensive and insufficient smoke-free policies.

Even if property managers do implement a smoke-free policies, enforcing such a policy is difficult. The San Diego Smoke-Free Project emphasizes the importance of not criminalizing, evicting, or displacing people who smoke. One way to enforce a policy without evicting residents is through fining violators, but determining a fine amount that motivates residents to comply with smoke-free policies without financially jeopardizing low-income residents is also challenging. 

“Finding a Champion in Every City”

These challenges do not discourage the San Diego Smoke-Free Project team. Little by little, they continue to gather and analyze data about residents, types of properties, cleaning costs, and fire risks as well as conduct key informant interviews to learn more about how smoking is impacting multiunit housing and how stakeholders feel about it. They present this evidence to policymakers throughout San Diego County to encourage them to protect their communities from tobacco smoke exposure. Along with this evidence, they encourage San Diego County community members to share their personal stories about tobacco smoke exposure with their City Council representatives. 

Policymakers who agree to bring tobacco control policies to City Council are known as champions, one of the staff explained.

“Finding a champion in every city,” she said, “That’s our goal.” 

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