The right to smoke versus the right to breathe

The first advocacy campaign of my life did not involve housing, community development, civil rights, the environment or even Vietnam. Instead, it was a years-long effort to get my mother to quit smoking! Every day, for years, I would interrogate her after school about how many cigarettes she had smoked that day. I was relentless, using every tool I had – facts, nagging, shame, and most of all guilt (“you are going to die!”)  Eventually, my mom finally acquiesced and quit smoking when I was about 11 years old. I’d like to think I had a role in helping her live a full and active life until she passed away last year at the age of 82.

At the time, the early 1970s, smoking was still widespread and accepted just about everywhere. Over the past 35 years, however, smoking has been banned from virtually every indoor and even many outdoor venues. Despite my roots as an anti-smoking crusader, I sometimes wonder if perhaps we have gone too far – smokers should have rights too. 

All of this came to mind recently when I met with leaders from Health Resources in Action and the Boston Alliance for Community Health who are working to encourage CDCs and others to implement no smoking policies in their rental housing.  Shouldn’t people be allowed to smoke in their own homes, for goodness sake, even if they happen to need subsidized housing? Should low income people have to give up their rights?

Upon reflection, however, I think the reasons to go smoke free outweigh any hesitations that I or others may have. Smoke free housing is healthier, safer, cheaper and preferred by the majority of tenants. In the words of Ava Chan at the Allston Brighton CDC, “it's about the right to breathe rather than the right to smoke.”  And smoke free housing appears to be the wave of the future as it quickly emerges as a “best practice” for providing safe and healthy housing to our communities. A wide range of housing groups are adopting such policies, including the Boston Housing Authority, the national nonprofit group, Preservation of Affordable Housing, and several of our members.

Implementing smoke free housing is not easy. It requires education, organizing, and ultimately some tough love. Elderly tenants who have smoked in their homes for years may be a particular challenge. Thankfully, affordable housing owners who want to go smoke free don’t have to do it alone. Health Resources in Action is providing funding and technical assistance to five CDCs (Allston Brighton CDC, Asian CDC, Dorchester Bay EDC, Grove Hall NDC, and Jamaica Plain NDC) to help them adopt such policies and they can help others. The Mass. Department of Public Health and the Center for Disease Control (the other CDC) both have resources to help CDCs and others implement smoke free housing policies.

CDCs have always been committed to creating healthy communities. I hope more of our members move in this direction because smoke free housing is a tangible and significant way to improve the lives of our tenants. And I’m sure there are many boys and girls living in these apartments who will very much appreciate an ally in their own campaigns to get their parents to stop smoking! And those parents, like my mother, will be glad they did.



North Shore CDC is headed towards smoke-free living as well. While we haven't implemented the policy across the board yet, our newest 43-unit SRO development in Beverly is entirely smoke-free, and we plan for all new developments to follow suit. It makes sense not only for healthy, clean homes, but also drastically decreases maintenance costs. We've found that even residents who are smokers prefer to live in smoke-free buildings.

Yes, I do agree. During the summer it is hard for me to enjoy a nice time outside on my balcony or in my living room because my neighbors smoke.I usually stay inside and close my windows. Thankfully, they are not chain smokers.

Joe-Thanks for addressing this complex issue. Indoor air quality is an integral part of quality design and construction. Cigarette smoke should not be part of this equation.

I support this direction, for all the policy reasons Joe gives, and supported by my own family's history with this issue. I also recognize that it won't be easy. Tobacco may be the hardest addiction to overcome, and people get emotional. One element I would also stress is that we not then replicate what happens in smoke-free commercial buildings, with concentration of smoke in areas near the entries and commonly used pathways. Again, this will require firm and sensitive management expertise.

I support the policy of smoke-free housing as well. Asthma rates are sky-high in low-income communities, and as the father of two asthmatic kids I feel this keenly. Ideally, there should be a designated outdoor area for smokers at least 15 feet from the entrances, though I appreciate that the constraints of urban sites can complicate this.

Great piece, Joe. This is another important intersection between the fields of public health and community development.