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Cambridge Housing Authority bans smoking in its buildings

Posted by Brock Parker  September 25, 2013 02:41 PM

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Over objections that they would be forcing elderly smokers out into the cold, Cambridge Housing Authority commissioners voted to ban smoking in their buildings Wednesday, joining Boston and a number of cities who are snuffing out cigarettes in public housing.

The 3-1 vote at the Authority’s headquarters drew shouts of “shame on you” and “where do you get off?” from smokers and opponents of the smoking ban, which they argue invades the privacy of what a person does in his or her home.

“I’m a smoker, I’m not a criminal,” said Jon Brehm, 60, who lives in a Housing Authority building and said he’s been smoking since he was 11.

The smoke-free policy adopted by the Authority’s Board of Commissioners will ban all smoking in its buildings and is scheduled to be implemented by Aug. 1, 2014. The Authority will establish designated smoking areas at least 25 feet from any doors or windows on its properties.

Residents will have to sign lease addendums that include the smoke-free policy, and violators will face a series of verbal and written warnings and by the fourth offense they could face legal action.

The commissioners also approved a fast-track process Wednesday that would allow the smoking ban to be implemented sooner at Authority buildings where tenants call for an election, and the ban gets enough favorable support, said Susan Cohen, general counsel for the Authority.

In 2011, a similar ban by the Boston Housing Authority made Boston the largest city in the nation to ban smoking in public housing. That ban took effect in September of 2012. Boston’s policy was aimed at protecting nonsmokers, especially children, from breathing secondhand cigarette smoke from neighboring units.

The Cambridge Housing Authority has cited similar health concerns about secondhand smoke. In January, the Authority held a survey in which 538 residents responded, which is about 21.5 percent of the Authority’s tenants, and 79 percent of the survey participants said they preferred to live in smoke-free housing. After the survey, the Authority held a 60-day comment period on the ban from early June to early August.

Cohen said there has been tremendous support of the ban from tenants, despite the very vocal opponents.

Victoria Bergland, the lone commissioner who voted against the ban Wednesday, called the policy “harsh” and said she is concerned that elderly tenants will have to go outside to smoke during the winter.

She said she’s also concerned that the smoking ban does not provide enough time for people who have been smoking 30 or 40 years to kick the habit.

“It hurts me to my heart for this to be able to go through so quickly,” Bergland said.

But Gregory Russ, the Authority’s executive director, said that the policy does allow for latitude in regard to tenants who violate the smoking policy but engage the staff about the matter.

“Even if the fourth violation occurs, there is still an opportunity to work in a way that we feel is very balanced and fair,” Russ said.

Stephen Helfer, 66, who lives in Cambridge but is not a tenant of the Housing Authority, attended the commissioners meeting Wednesday and shouted "shame on you" at the board after the vote.

Helfer said he is a smoker’s rights advocate and it disturbs him that the Authority wants to ban smoking in people’s homes, especially when the ban will force the elderly outside to smoke.

“Telling them that they have to go out in the snow at night to have a cigarette seems to have not public health purpose,” Helfer said.

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