As a pediatrician, I care for children suffering from many illnesses. One patient that stands out in my mind is a seven-year-old girl with asthma. She was taking her asthma medication regularly, yet, she had several Emergency Room visits and missed school on a regular basis.
I later found out that while no one in the young girl’s apartment smoked tobacco, the surrounding units had smokers, and the smoke was entering the little girl’s apartment, causing her asthma to flare up.
This was a family that didn’t have the resources to move to escape daily exposure to secondhand smoke. Asking her landlord and neighbors to do something about the smoke resulted in no action. Simply said, the family felt helpless, and the little girl’s health was suffering.
Like this young girl, every day, thousands of apartment residents across the San Fernando Valley breathe secondhand smoke against their will. Smoke drifts into their apartments from outdoor common areas and nearby units where people who smoke light up.
Research tells us more than one in three non-smokers who live in rental housing are being exposed to secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke exposure is deadly, especially to children, whose bodies and lungs are still developing. A 2007 survey in Los Angeles County estimated that more than 300,000 children are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke.
I’m pleased that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has proposed mandating that all public housing authorities across the nation ban smoking in order to eliminate tenant exposure to secondhand smoke. If implemented, this decision would be welcomed, but it won’t affect market-rate apartment residents, and that amounts to unequal protection.
The act of smoking is not a legally protected right. Yet, across the Valley, smoking restrictions in apartment buildings are conspicuously rare. The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research in April released a survey of nearly 1,000 apartment dwellers in Los Angeles that found that policies to prevent smoking aren’t in place for a majority of apartments in the city. The survey also showed nearly 40 percent of tenants reported secondhand smoke drifting into their apartments in the past year.
There are those who say government has no business regulating what tenants do in the privacy of their own homes, especially since tobacco is a legal product. This argument would be valid if smokers were only a danger to themselves. What about the rights of non-smokers, especially children?
Los Angeles’ rent-control law could be viewed as a major barrier to achieving smoke-free apartment housing. After all, it doesn’t permit a landlord to change conditions of tenancy once a renter has moved into a unit. Indeed, that’s what keeps many landlords from voluntarily imposing or enforcing non-smoking policies.
But a UCLA survey released in April shows a majority of landlords in the city support smoke-free apartments in Los Angeles. But, many said they need information on how to go about instituting a ban, and the legality of such action.
Many California cities with strong tenant-protections — such as Berkeley — have found common-sense solutions, and Los Angeles ought to follow suit. Doing nothing is simply unacceptable and harmful to many Valley residents. In the interest of public health, it’s time for Los Angeles to ensure a smoke-free environment for all apartment residents.
In my view, ensuring smoke-free apartment living is the best way to protect children, as well as seniors and vulnerable populations in the city from getting sick by inhaling secondhand smoke against their will. That will result in a healthier community, and it’s something all of us can, and should, support!
Garell is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at UCLA.