The Housing Authority of Chester County last summer became the first housing authority in Southeastern Pennsylvania to prohibit tenants, guests, employees, and contractors from smoking inside the units or anywhere else on the premises.
"From a marketing standpoint, the heavy smokers used to sit on the front porch, sit there and puff cigarettes all day long. It just looked real bad," said Dale P. Gravett, the authority's executive director. "From a legal standpoint, this has been researched to death. As owners of a property, we can adopt policies like this."
The Philadelphia Housing Authority also is considering such a policy, spokeswoman Nichole L. Tillman said, but would probably phase it in.
On Feb. 1, the Village of Pennbrook Apartments in Levittown banned smoking in all common areas of the Bucks County complex, including inside a parked car. The owner of the complex, AIMCO, is a publicly traded apartment investor that has other properties in Bucks County, Philadelphia, and across the United States that are phasing in smoke-free policies.
"One of our priorities at AIMCO is to provide a healthy, clean, and comfortable environment for our residents," said AIMCO spokeswoman Cindy Duffy. "We believe our smoke-free amenity supports that goal directly. We see it as a health benefit to have cleaner air."
People caught smoking in the common areas are warned about the policy and, if they continue to flout it, could be evicted.
But some Pennbrook residents seemed unaware of the policy. On Monday, a man exited from an apartment smoking a cigarette.
"You're not allowed to smoke here outside? I didn't know," said the man, who declined to give his name. He immediately extinguished his cigarette by stubbing it along the sidewalk.
"You can't smoke outside on the grounds here? That's ridiculous," said another resident who also declined to give his name. "My wife and I just moved here, and we smoke."
Yet another resident said she was aware of the smoking restrictions but that she and her fiance had ignored them.
There is no safe level of secondhand smoke exposure, according to a 2006 U.S. surgeon general's report. The first surgeon general's report on smoking, released 50 years ago, highlighted how smokers have a much greater chance of getting lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, and other diseases compared with non-smokers.
Ochs said the state had 113 smoke-free housing sites as of March 1. "This has surpassed our expectations with how rapidly it is growing," she said.
Nonprofit organization HDC MidAtlantic owns or manages six housing complexes in Chester County, and all will be smoke-free effective May 1, according to spokeswoman Jolene Weaver.
"Our No. 1 goal is to provide quality affordable housing to residents and to enhance their way of life," she said. "We believe adding a smoke-free policy benefits their quality of life and also creates healthier communities."
Weaver said 77 percent of the organization's Chester County residents were in favor of going smoke-free. HDC MidAtlantic owns or manages 48 affordable-housing properties across Pennsylvania, and 43 of those sites have smoke-free policies in effect or soon to be implemented.
Residents generally comply with the rules, Weaver said, but "we have evicted people for smoking."
Made a difference
Any measure aimed at limiting people's exposure to secondhand smoke "is a great public health initiative, particularly to the elderly populations and young people whose lungs are in the process of growing," said Thurman Brendlinger, program director for the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, an advocacy group.
With public housing authorities and privately owned multiunit housing complexes increasingly becoming smoke-free zones, "I will guarantee you," Brendlinger said, "that you will see a marked increase in this type of initiative."
David Sutton, a spokesman for cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris USA, said the company "understands and agrees that people should be able to avoid being around secondhand smoke," but thinks "complete bans go too far. We believe that smoking should be permitted outdoors except in very particular circumstances, such as outdoor areas primarily designed for children."
Paul Maccari, 54, an independent contractor who does paint work at Chester County's public housing facilities, said the housing authority's no-smoke policy had made a difference.
"These buildings, they are cleaner," he said Tuesday at the smoke-free Locust Court housing site in West Chester. "It is a cleaner environment."
BY THE NUMBERS
Multi-unit housing sites with smoke-free policies in Pennsylvania.
Smoke-free housing sites in Philadelphia.
Smoke-free housing sites in Chester County.
Smoke-free housing sites in Delaware County.
Smoke-free housing sites each in Bucks and Montgomery Counties.
SOURCE: Pa. Dept. of Health