The issue has pitted neighbor against neighbor, taken over homeowner association agendas and led to a major legal debate over public health and the rights of homeowners. Federal incentives have led cities from Austin to Boston to prohibit smoking in public housing. In 2006, a Manhattan judge ruled that secondhand smoke could be a breach of “warranty of habitability” under New York law. And six California cities and counties have banned smoking in all condo units.
Last year at the Promenade Towers in Bethesda, a co-op with more than 1,000 units, neighbors on the first floor complained about a resident chain smoker. The building’s management took steps to contain the smoke by sealing gaps in the walls and issuing a “cease and desist” order to the smoker, who installed a second air filtration system. But the smoke, according to some residents, was still unbearable. “I leave doors and windows open, even as I sleep,” said Ximena Marquez-Dagan, whose young daughter has asthma. “I’ve moved to sleep in my daughter’s room now because the other side of the apartment is full of smoke.”
For years, smoking at home wasn’t much of a dilemma. In 1965, 42 percent of Americans smoked, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and those who didn’t were used to secondhand smoke in offices, stores and other people’s homes. Several decades ago, smoking was even advertised as healthful.
But since the U.S. surgeon general’s landmark 1964 report on smoking’s risks, Americans have slowly turned against “the evil weed”; barely 20 percent smoke today, fewer around Washington. “There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke,” the surgeon general’s Web site emphasizes. Smoking has been banned in most workplaces for decades. More jurisdictions, including many in the Washington area, now ban smoking in restaurants, and some extend that to parks and play areas.
“If you’re a homeowner, you should retain the right to smoke. It’s your property, and it’s a legal product,” said Jolyn Tenn, spokesperson for Forces International, a libertarian nonprofit founded to fight nonsmoking laws.
Although public opinion and habits might be changing, the law isn’t always very clear.
When indoor smokers Darko and Svetlana Popovic moved into a Greenbelt townhouse next door to non-smoker David S. Schuman in 1996, they shared smoke as well as an attic.
Schuman complained to the building’s management company, Greenbelt Homes, about the smoke seeping into his unit. The company caulked around baseboards, plumbing and electrical outlets in both homes in an effort to eliminate the issue. The problem lessened, though Schuman said that this was because the Popovics had begun smoking only outside — not because the caulking had worked.