My Neighbour's Smoking Makes Me Sick

Jack Boomer

Web-only article from "Tobacco" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 3 (4)

Does the smell of tobacco smoke drift into the place where you live—from an open window, an open balcony, bathroom vents, cracks in walls, ceilings or through plumbing vents? If it does, you are not alone.

In an in-house, unpublished survey conducted by the Clean Air Coalition last year, one in three tenants in rental situations reported that they smelled tobacco smoke drifting into their apartment but didn’t feel they had much power to do anything about it, and only about one in 10 reported they have talked to the landlord very or somewhat often about the problem of drifting smoke.

Consider Darla’s story. Darla suffers from respiratory illness and lives with her husband in a non-profit housing unit. Her neighbour, Samantha, smokes, and this smoke drifts into Darla’s unit. This makes Darla very sick, causing her to cough, wheeze and gasp for air.

Darla and her husband would like to live in a building free of second-hand smoke, but few smoke-free rental options exist. They are also unclear about their rights with regard to second-hand smoke protection in their current living situation.

This lack of clarity isn’t exclusive to tenants. Many property managers are also unsure about what they can and cannot do. Little has been done to articulate people’s rights on the issue, despite the fact that 85% of British Columbians choose not to smoke.1 Some building owners have even used the demand for smoke-free housing and the ambiguity around the issue to advantage, incorrectly advertising their buildings as “smoke-free,” when they only prohibit smoking in common areas but continue to allow tenants to smoke in their apartments.

Fortunately, the seepage of drifting smoke into apartments and condominiums is now emerging as a growing area of serious concern for tenants and building owners alike. Consequently, more people are interested in addressing the issue.

The Clean Air Coalition of BC has been working since 2004 to address the problem with its founding members, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of BC & Yukon and the BC Lung Association. The coalition works closely with community organizations such as the Tenants’ Rights Action Coalition, the Rental Owners and Managers Association of BC and the BC Non-Profit Housing Association.

The dangerous health effects of second-hand smoke are widely acknowledged as a public health hazard known to cause lung disease, cancer, respiratory illnesses and a host of other serious conditions in non-smokers. The BC government has created laws that restrict smoking inside the workplace, and recently proposed new laws that place additional restrictions on where tobacco can be purchased and displayed, yet there is a definite lack of legislation in place to protect British Columbians from its deadly effects in the home.

To be fair, let’s take into consideration what legislation does exist. The Residential Tenancy Act does include a legal clause that requires landlords to provide tenants with “quiet enjoyment.” Playing loud music, for example, could feasibly interfere with a neighbour’s quiet enjoyment. Second-hand smoke, however, has seldom been acknowledged by administrators of the Residential Tenancy Act as interfering with quiet enjoyment.

The Clean Air Coalition of BC, along with other partners, is working to encourage the Residential Tenancy Branch to include second-hand smoke within the guidelines that are used by dispute resolution officers when considering what infringes on tenant’s quiet enjoyment. To date, the coalition’s efforts have largely been educational, working with housing providers, landlord associations and tenant rights groups to ensure they are aware that it is legal for landlords to include no-smoking policies in their tenancy agreements.

As a general rule, property owners and their landlords are permitted to impose restrictions on their tenants, unless those restrictions violate existing laws or are discriminatory. Some people say that you cannot impinge on people’s right to do what they want in their own home. However, there are many examples of restrictions on what people can do in their home, when it is in a common living situation. A smoke-free policy is really no different than a no pet, no loud music, or any other policy that protects another tenant’s well-being or a landlord’s property. Landlords, therefore, can choose to legally include a clause in rental agreements requiring tenants to keep their indoor and patio spaces smoke-free. In fact, landlords would benefit from doing so. Smoke-free buildings generate lower cleaning costs and fewer complaints from tenants about smoke drifting into their home.

The Clean Air Coalition is also working with non-profit housing providers to develop a policy that could be used to move toward some smoke-free accommodation within the non-profit (social housing) community.

Individuals with mental health or addictions issues may be affected by a move toward smoke-free housing. It may require them to smoke further from their building, or to consider quitting smoking. Resources are in place to help people quit smoking, such as those provided through QuitNow Services. You may access the services 24/7 either on-line at www.quitnow.ca, or by calling QuitNow By Phone at 1-877-455-2233 to speak to registered nurses.

Tenants have the right to live free of a significant cause of illness in the home, but little is being done to enforce this right in rental living situations. Clearly, most tenants find second-hand smoke that enters their residence to be an annoyance and a discomfort. For some, it is a major cause of significant health problems.

So what can Darla and her husband do to protect themselves from the second-hand smoke drifting into their apartment from their neighbour’s apartment? They can ask their landlord to enforce their right to quiet enjoyment, or they can make a complaint through the Residential Tenancy Branch.

The Clean Air Coalition is focused on making positive changes to existing second-hand smoke legislation. Given that less than 15% of British Columbian’s smoke, the time has come to forge a solution that not only addresses the welfare of individuals who have significant breathing and other health problems, but protects all British Columbians from the potential long-term effects of second-hand smoke exposure in the home.

In the meantime, sadly, Darla’s struggle to breathe continues.

 
About the author
Jack is Director of the Clean Air Coalition of BC
Footnote:
  1. Health Canada. (2006). Canadian Tobacco Use Monitoring Survey (CTUMS) 2005 (Table 2). www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/tobac-tabac/research-recherche/stat/ctums-esutc/2005/ann-table2_e.html

 

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