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Smoke ban in your home?
Lake talks setting rule for public housing
By Madhu Krishnamurthy | Daily Herald Staff

Warren Township resident Betty Smith is pushing state and county officials to ban smoking in Lake County public housing facilities.


Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Betty Smith is an ex-smoker and cancer survivor who says the cigarette smoke seeping into her apartment is so bad she has to hold a tissue over her nose and mouth.


Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

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Published: 8/30/2008 11:48 PM

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Illinois smokers have dolefully snuffed out their cigarettes before entering restaurants, bars, hotels, work places and all public spaces.

Yet, lighting up in one's own home, arguably the last safe haven for smokers, soon may not be possible for Lake County's public housing residents.

The Lake County Housing Authority is considering banning smoking in public housing units, an unprecedented move in Illinois.

"We try to be ahead of the curve," said David Northern, Lake County Housing Authority executive director. "We have a high population of persons with disabilities, senior citizens and lower income individuals who have health problems without the health care to treat those problems. It's not right for them to have to deal with secondhand smoke."

Roughly 80 public housing authorities in 15 states from California to Maine have adopted smoke-free policies, said Jim Bergman, director of the Smoke-free Environments Law Project based in Ann Arbor, Mich. The group works with local health departments on smoke-free issues largely focusing on apartments and condominiums.

Bergman said Lake County could be the leader in Illinois if it takes this step.

"I think it's an extremely wise move for them and their residents," he said. "Once one housing authority in a state does this, then it's likely that others will follow."

Northern said Lake County and the state going smoke free provided added incentive to act now.

It would represent an expansion of Illinois' smoke-free movement, which started with Chicago and dozens of municipalities across the North and Northwest suburbs adopting their own smoking bans. The statewide smoke-free law and Lake County's ordinance, approved within days of each other in May 2007, went into effect Jan. 1.

The state law prohibits smoking in all indoor public places and workplaces, including restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, casinos, private clubs, banquet halls, factories, warehouses and maintenances garages. Lake County, the first of the counties to go smoke-free, made its rules for unincorporated areas slightly more stringent than the state.

Officials with several suburban housing authorities say they have not considered banning smoking in public housing units because the issue has never come up. There are roughly 30,973 public housing units in the six-county region, including the cities of Chicago and Elgin, and suburban Cook, Lake, McHenry, Kane and Will counties. DuPage County has none.

The Lake County Housing Authority is now working with the county health department to survey how many of its tenants living in 620 public housing units throughout the county are smokers. It owns and operates eight buildings that are solely for senior citizens.

"Once the numbers come in, we'll start working on a policy and maybe making one building smoke-free first," Northern said.

Officials won't begin developing a policy until January, and it would include collecting input from staff, a residents' advisory board and the overall community through a public hearing.

It likely wouldn't go into effect until October 2008. If one is adopted, the no-smoking rule would become part of a tenant's lease, requiring smokers to take it outside like they do everywhere else. The all-important enforcement question has not been resolved.

Any policy change has to be approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the housing authority's board of commissioners.

Officials started discussing the idea two years ago, spurred by a few residents' complaints about secondhand smoke, concerns about health and fire safety, and the costs of rehabbing apartments with smoking damage.

Warren Township resident Betty Smith, an 80-year-old ex-smoker who survived lung and breast cancer, has been urging the agency to eliminate smoking from public housing facilities like Warren Manor, where she has lived for 18 years.

Smith enlisted the help of state Sen. Michael Bond and the county health department to make her case.

She says smoke seeps into her apartment from the walls behind her kitchen cabinets, through vents, the patio door and the main doorway off a common walkway.

"I have to sit with a Kleenex over my face because sometimes the smoke coming in is so heavy," she said. "I'm getting bronchitis from it and my voice goes in and out. There are other (residents) who have breathing problems and heart problems. I don't want other people to go through what I'm going through so I'm fighting this. It's for all of us."

Smoke can travel through crawl spaces, shared attic space, electrical outlets, and plumbing, said Barbara de Nekker, community health specialist for the Lake County Health Department's Tobacco Free Lake County Program.

"Twenty (percent) to 60 percent of the air in apartments comes from other units," she said. "It dilutes itself and gets everywhere. There's a lot of ways that air is shared."

Northern said the cost of maintaining apartments rented to smokers is another big reason the agency is considering a change.

"The walls turn yellow from all the nicotine and tar," he said. "You have to paint two or three times to cover it. Everywhere you go, it's going to cost you more to deal with people that smoke when you're rehabbing units."

Health officials said smoking also is one of the major causes of home fires.

Smokers' rights activist Garnet Dawn Scheuer of Lake Bluff, Midwest regional director for The Smoker's Club Inc., said banning smoking in peoples' homes is an invasion of privacy and goes against constitutionally protected rights.

"They are taking people who can't fight back and bullying them," she said. "Once again, they are picking on the poor."

Yet, smokers are not a protected class under federal fair housing laws, said Steve Meiss, director of the Illinois public housing division for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Though the department does not have a policy about smoking in public housing, it supports what individual housing authorities nationwide have done to ban it, Meiss said.

"It's becoming increasingly common and they (housing authorities) have a perfect right to do so," Meiss said. "It's a fire safety thing. It's a huge health issue. I would think that more and more housing authorities would be moving in this direction. It's very popular to have clean air."