The Tyranny of Smoke-Free Living

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By Marc Fisher
Thursday, November 30, 2006

D.C. Hughes has lived at The Blairs, a sprawling apartment complex in the heart of downtown Silver Spring, for a decade. His mother has lived there for 15 years. Come next year, they will have to move because they smoke.

The Blairs is one of a growing number of apartment complexes across the country that require new tenants to agree not to allow smoking in their units. But unlike nearly all those other buildings, it is pushing the issue one big step further: Any resident who refuses to sign a smoke-free lease addendum must go when the current lease expires.

The change is driven by health concerns and the fire risk that smokers pose. An elderly couple at The Blairs died last year in a blaze that Montgomery County fire officials blamed on "improperly discarded smoking materials."

In a letter dropped on doorsteps last week, General Manager Ray Jordan told tenants at the 27-acre, 1,300-unit complex that the new policy was adopted after "numerous" residents complained about secondhand smoke leaking into their apartments. "According to a survey taken last year," Jordan wrote, "less than four percent of our residents smoke or have guests in their apartments who smoke."

"This came out of the blue," says Hughes, a 40-year-old photojournalist. "If they can do this, what's to stop them from declaring it an alcohol-free complex?" Or fatty foods-free. Appalled that he could be forced to move if he won't stop smoking in his own home, Hughes appealed to county officials.

No luck. "I do understand your concerns, especially for long-time tenants who may have to move if they cannot commit to living smoke-free," County Council President George Leventhal e-mailed Hughes. But "smokers are not a protected class" under the law, Leventhal said, and he would not support any change in the law to protect smokers from having to leave their homes.

Legally, building owners are free to ban smoking. Anti-smoking groups across the country encourage building owners to go smoke-free, arguing that these days, a litigious nonsmoker seeking a smoke-free building is more likely to find a friendly hearing in court than a frustrated smoker driven out of his home by a ban.

Advocates say a no-smoking policy is no different from a no-pet or no-loud music policy, just one more way to provide everyone a higher quality of life. Interestingly, The Blairs recently dropped its no-pet policy and now bills itself as "pet-friendly."

If smokers don't like it, anti-smoking activists say, too bad; this is not the same as discriminating against someone because of religion or physical condition.

"Smoking is a behavior, not a predetermined characteristic like race or sex," argues smokefreeapartments.org, a California advocacy group. (But even in California, advocates seek a ban only on smoking in common areas and in at least half the units in a building; they don't dare press for a total ban, let alone one that would evict existing residents.)

Anti-smoking groups insist that smoke can drift from one unit to another through walls, floors, ventilation and plumbing. I think I saw this happen in "Ghostbusters" but not in three decades of living in apartments.

Still, let anti-smoking fanatics segregate themselves to their lungs' content.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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