(pictured above: County Health Director Marlon Hunter addresses attendees.)
Public health officials are making a push to persuade local property owners and managers to implement smoke free policies.
“As landlords and property managers, you have a huge opportunity,” Forsyth County Department of Public Health Director Marlon Hunter told the contingent of housing owners and public health advocates who gathered at the Department last week for a two hour lunch and learn workshop that extolled the benefits of apartment smoking bans. “You have an opportunity to reduce costs and you also have a huge opportunity to reduce a risk to a major preventable cause of disease and that is secondhand smoke.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has taken a strong stance in support of such smoke free policies, and its influence is causing other property managers to take note. Health advocates say that multi-unit housing complexes that allow smoking increase nonsmokers’ exposure to secondhand smoke by way of air ducts, ventilation systems and common areas. Allowing smoking also increases the risk of fire and other smoking-related damage, they say.
Implementing smoke free policies is a “win-win” for property managers and their tenants, because it reduces the risk of property damage and cleaning costs and improves the health of the residents, said Elizabeth Edmonds, a public health associate for the Centers for Disease Control who is overseeing the effort in Forsyth County.
“From my research, what I’ve seen is it’s becoming very popular,” the Chicago native said of the policies. “Everybody knows the effects of secondhand smoke, so we want to get as many properties as we can on board with the smoke free policy.”
Although she expected some resistance in a state with such strong ties to the tobacco industry, response to the project has been overwhelmingly positive, Edmonds said.
“Most people just were very interested. They were glad that we were glad that we were offering something like this,” she reported. “For the most part, everybody was very open to it and they like the idea.”
Scott Alderman, president of Landura Management Associates, a property management firm with properties in 10 states, shared his firsthand experiences of going smoke free three years ago. Virtually all of the company’s units now have policies that require residents and guests to be at least 25 feet away from the buildings when smoking, Alderman said.
“We use our smoke free housing as a marketing tool,” Alderman told attendees. “Everyone knows that secondhand smoke is harmful. It also puts your staff and your residents at risk.”
He said his company learned the hard way that apartment-living and smoking can be a dangerous mix. Over the course of a 10-day period, the company incurred over $1.3 million in property damage from two fires – one in Virginia and one in North Carolina, Alderman said. Both fires were caused by people who were smoking.
“We’re protecting assets and we’re protecting residents,” Alderman told the group. “…Fires put innocent people out of their homes.”
Although the company’s insurance rates did increase because of the massive damage that resulted, by implementing smoke free policies, they were able to reduce the increase in premiums, he explained. The company also saves on cleaning costs for fixtures, appliances and HVAC systems, he said.
“It’s a lot of needless cost that you can try to avoid,” Alderman noted. “…At the end of the day, it’s well worth it, and a lot easier to do than one would ever think.”
Anna Stein, an attorney with the North Carolina Division of Public Health, explained the legalities of going smoke free.
“Mainly the big legal issue is that it is legal,” Stein said, noting that smokers are not a protected class. “What determines a person’s right to smoke is whether or not the owner of the property that they’re standing on tells them they can.”
The smoke free movement is quickly gaining steam, explained Stein, who specializes in smoke free multi unit housing. The implementation of smoke free policies in restaurants and bars across the state has empowered nonsmokers to demand clean air in other aspects of their lives, she said. Although some property owners have expressed concern that implementing smoke free policies will deter would-be residents and cause turnover, statistics show that that has not been the case, Stein said. She encouraged those present to work in conjunction with their local health departments, which she said can lend credibility to the reasons behind the policies and offer resources for residents who want to give up the habit.
Dean Graves attended the Lunch and Learn on behalf of the Westminster Company, a property manager with more than 4,800 units in Virginia and North and South Carolina. The company, which owns West Hill Apartments in Winston-Salem, has already implemented smoke free policies in three of its 66 properties, Graves said.
“It went better than expected,” he said of implementing the policy at the pilot sites. “Generally, the residents are adhering to the policies and we have not had as many complaints as we had anticipated.”
Requests for smoke free housing are on the rise, said Graves, who also served on a four member panel at the workshop, and with the success of implementing the policies in the initial sites, the company is preparing to take the leap with the rest of its portfolio.
“We have made a decision two weeks ago to go smoke free companywide,” he revealed. “We’re very excited about that.”
Martin Hernandez, president of the local TRU (Tobacco Reality Unfiltered) was on hand for the workshop, along with two other members of the teen-driven anti-smoking group. Hernandez, a senior at Reynolds High School, said he was hopeful that property managers would hear the message about the importance of implementing smoke free policies loud and clear.
“I hope they do decide to support it, because smoke free housing, in looking over everything, it does save them money,” said the 18-year-old. “It’s a lot healthier for people, and it prevents secondhand smoke in a lot of homes, which is why I support it.”