Letter to the Editor: Condos should say no to secondhand smoke

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Smoking has been outlawed in most public establishments, but come condos still allow it. (photo courtesy of quitsmokingcentral.org)

Every year, on the third Thursday of November, communities across the nation take part in the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout. This year, a new D.C. community group – Residents for a Smoke Free McLean Gardens – used this day of action to draw attention to the continued dangers of secondhand smoke exposure in residential settings.

I helped establish this group as a resident of the McLean Gardens condo community and a public health professional who is associate executive director of the American College of Preventive Medicine. D.C. condo residents most likely have no recourse should we be exposed to secondhand smoke from our immediate neighbors. Most condo bylaws do not expressly prohibit smoking in condo units, and proving that owners are violating a “noxious or offensive activity” clause is too high a burden, especially with often-unresponsive boards of directors.

It’s time to change our condo bylaws – no matter which community we live in. Why? The U.S. Surgeon General has determined that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. And secondhand smoke cannot be contained between units. Even if there is no odor, smoke travels through walls and floors and has the potential to kill.

Smokers are not a constitutionally protected class. As a society that values public health, we have the right to restrict what residential owners can do in their property if it affects others’ health.

A great legal reminder of this comes from the Supreme Court’s 1905 ruling in Jacobson v. Massachusetts. The decision confirmed the government’s ability to restrict personal behavior for the general welfare of the public: “But the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis, organized society could not exist with safety to its members.”

Now, 112 years later, we are still fighting to apply this declaration to secondhand smoke. We nonsmokers in condos have a legal right to live in a 100 percent smoke-free property. While more and more local and federal courts are ruling in favor of nonsmokers’ rights, the real work is in changing bylaws so condo residents and owners have access to safe and healthy homes, regardless of who our neighbors are.

While D.C. laws requiring smoke-free bars and restaurants were a major victory, we can’t stop there. Let’s make 2018 the year we bring it home.

– Danielle L. Pere, McLean Gardens