So your apartment neighbor is smoking. Now what?
What recourse do tenants in apartment buildings have against secondhand smoke?
Your apartment has it all — ample parking, thick walls, good maintenance, and — is that smoke?
Daniel Tranter, supervisor of the Indoor Air Unit at the Minnesota Department of Health, said he often hears from renters who are concerned about neighbors who smoke.
The Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act (MCIAA) prohibits smoking and vaping in public areas, which include common areas like hallways, lobbies, garages and party rooms.
“If there’s smoke drifting from one private residence to another, that’s not something we can regulate,” Tranter said.
Some rental properties have lease addendums in place that prohibit smoking indoors. If that’s the case, a concerned resident need only hope their landlord will enforce the policy when prompted, he said.
Pa Houa Moua, a community health specialist with Olmsted County Public Health, works with Live Smoke Free to help area residents with their own negotiations.
“One thing residents can do is they can bring it up to the landlords or managers, and see if they can get a smoke-free policy in place,” she said.
Live Smoke Free suggests a few avenues for renters who are exposed to secondhand smoke — contacting the smokers in the building to ask them to take things outside, discussing the issue with a landlord or building manager, enlisting support from neighbors, and finally seeking third-party assistance in convincing a landlord or building owner to make the property smoke-free
That’s where Moua comes in.
If those negotiations don’t work, though, Moua refers renters to the Live Smoke Free’s directory of smoke-free apartment complexes, senior living centers, and condos .
"Many rental housing properties have adopted smoke-free policies, and we are seeing an increase in the number of common-interest communities (condos, townhomes, etc.) that are also embracing these policies to ensure their residents have the opportunity to live in a smoke-free environment," said Rachel Callanan, a senior staff attorney with the Public Health Law Center. "These policies protect all residents from secondhand smoke exposure, and also help to ensure properties are safer with reduced risk of fires."
Live Smoke Free has 26 smoke-free buildings listed in Rochester, although Moua said the listings may be incomplete. It’s the only list of smoke-free rental properties she knows of, and it’s entirely dependent on apartment management adding themselves to the list.
“It’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?” she said. “There are so many buildings going up and coming down lately that it’s hard to track.”
Not many renters make it to the point where they contact Moua for help with negotiation. In the past year, she said, she’s only received one or two calls from people in apartments looking to escape secondhand smoke.
Should I really be concerned?
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke — or thirdhand smoke, its natural successor.
Dr. J. Taylor Hays, director of Mayo’s Nicotine Dependence Center, said close-up secondhand smoke from burning cigarettes and the smoke and vapor that is exhaled poses only slightly less risk to those who inhale it than to smokers themselves.
A smoker next door is more likely to pass on harmful chemicals than one three doors down, he said.
“The farther away you are from the secondhand smoke, the more diluted, the better,” he said. “If you’re smelling the smoke, that says to me that all of the chemicals are being circulated in the ventilation system.”
Some immediate byproducts of secondhand smoke can be lung, eye and throat irritation, and increased risk of cancer, lung disease and heart disease over time. Children who are exposed to secondhand smoke may develop asthma or other chronic respiratory illnesses.
Thirdhand smoke is the residue from tobacco products that settles on surfaces. It can be smelled in cloth, but it also tends to be present on hard surfaces, where children, especially, can pick up chemicals on their hands from playing on the floor.
Unfortunately, there is no way to completely separate housing units that share a ventilation system, Tranter said. And landlords will likely be reluctant to try to separate ducting at their own expense.
“The only way to truly be protected is to have a smoke-free building,” Hays said. “(Otherwise) you can’t truly be protected even if your own apartment is smoke-free.”
Minnesota’s Live Smoke Free program is available at 651-646-3005 or www.mnsmokefreehousing.org . A quick guide to tenants’ rights is available at https://mnsmokefreehousing.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Fact-sheet-on-secondhand-smoke-and-renters-rights.pdf .