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Neighboring counties look to expand smoke-free rental options

No-smoking signs like this one posted outside the Goodhue County Justice Center have become commonplace at public buildings in Minnesota. Although state law allows people to smoke inside apartments and rental units, Four Corners Partnership is hoping more property owners make the switch to smoke-free. (Republican-Eagle photo by Michael Brun)

Workplaces, retail stores, government buildings, bars and restaurants - the list of smoke-free areas in Minnesota encompasses nearly every aspect of life. But there is one place where residents can still smoke with impunity: at home.

For homeowners, avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke is as easy as making a rule forbidding smoking inside. For renters - especially those with no other option than subsidized housing - the solution may not be so simple.

Even if someone makes smoking off limits in their own apartment, smoke from adjacent rooms can finds its way in through drafty walls and ventilation ducts.

To help increase the options available to renters, Four Corners Partnership, an alliance of health departments in Dodge, Goodhue, Rice and Steele counties, has teamed up to form the Coalition for Smoke-Free Housing.

"We hope it can be a resource for property managers thinking about making the change to smoke-free and want support or advice," said Tom Wolff, Four Corners Partnership smoke-free housing coordinator.

To help start the discussion on smoke-free housing in the area, Four Corners launched an online survey in early June.

Wolff said they are still analyzing the results of the poll, but added that recent national figures show overwhelming support by Americans for smoke-free rules in the home.

Roughly 80 percent of American households have smoke-free rules, according to a study published May 16 in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.

Additionally, around 48 percent of smokers said they too have smoke-free rules in their homes.

"This is really a growing trend," Wolff said. "More and more properties are going smoke free in Minnesota."

Renting in Goodhue County

Many of the rental properties in Goodhue County are older homes divided into five or six apartments, Wolff said. But there are a few exceptions, namely Red Wing's 100-unit Jordan Tower I and 104-unit Jordan Tower II.

Jordan Towers switched to a smoke-free policy in 2010, prohibiting smoking anywhere inside the buildings, including living spaces.

The Red Wing Housing and Redevelopment Authority Board, which oversees Jordan Towers, was an early pioneer in smoke-free housing in Goodhue County, Wolff said.

He said that Jordan Towers residents - many of whom are elderly or disabled - don't have the same options as other renters. That lack of mobility makes no-smoking policies important for tenants of low-income and subsidized housing.

"Folks in that situation can feel fortunate to have that housing, but the sad thing is that sometimes translates to fear," Wolff said. "People experiencing secondhand smoke don't want to speak up because they don't want to be labeled a troublemaker."

In such cases, Wolff recommends renters contact Four Corners Partnership for support.

"That's our role," Wolff said, "to help educate property owners and managers."

A conflict of rights

Freedom to Breath provisions were added to the Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act in 2007 that prohibit smoking in indoor common areas in apartment buildings.

But the law allows smoking in individual units unless the property manager or local ordinances say otherwise.

Wolff said that although the transition to smoke-free living in Jordan Towers was mostly smooth, there can be resistance when people are told they can no longer smoke in their own home.

"There are ways to go about this without a unilateral ban on smoking everywhere," said David Kuneman, the Midwest regional director of Citizens Freedom Alliance Inc. and the Smoker's Club, an online newsletter for smoking and property rights.

"The solution is to seal apartments," Kuneman said.

He said that landlords have a responsibility to ensure housing units are "reasonably isolated" from each other, which also would help keep out obnoxious cooking odors, airborne diseases and pests.

But Wolff said sealing off living spaces is not a feasible solution.

"Building aren't built to be spaceships or submarines," he said. "Buildings are just not designed that way."

He added that differences in air pressure will bring in smoke regardless of the age or type of a building.

"Ironically, people who have smoke coming in will open a window, which can reduce air pressure and bring in even more smoke," Wolff said.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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