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St. Lawrence County initiative aims to build more smoke-free housing

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MASSENA - Phillip J. Marlow doesn’t smoke, but his apartment in the Laurel Terrace complex in Massena tested positive for second-hand smoke.

His apartment is one of 100 units in the building on 9 Laurel Ave., and the neighbors on either side of him smoke.

“The smoke infiltrates all of the apartments,” he said. “When I talked to the Massena Housing Authority, they just told me that people have the right to smoke in their own apartment, but what about my right to breathe fresh air in my apartment?”

Mr. Marlow’s predicament is something that Benjamin R. Todd, tobacco program coordinator for the St. Lawrence County Public Health Department, hopes to bring to an end throughout the county.

Mr. Todd started an initiative last fall to spread awareness and education about smoke-free housing facilities across the county.

He said he is reaching out to housing authorities and landlords to talk to them about creating smoke-free policies in their buildings.

“It’s one of those things where we have to keep beating the drum and keep the information out there,” he said. “The main issue is that 60 percent of air within a multi-unit building is shared. Your neighbor’s smoke could be infiltrating your air.”

Mr. Todd said some housing authority officials and landlords don’t want to alienate any of their tenants.

“They serve all of their tenants and don’t want to single people out or make them feel unwelcome,” he said. “Our focus is not to attack people who smoke, but to create more opportunity for people who want to live in a smoke-free environment.”

Mr. Todd said St. Lawrence County has a high smoking rate, which, he said, can be linked to the economic state of the county as well as education levels, according to studies.

Mr. Todd said that smoke-free housing initiatives have taken hold in other areas including Buffalo and Central New York.

“As far as I’ve heard, there’s been a resounding ‘thank you’ from residents,” he said.

Positive feedback from tenants was music to the ears of Gregory W. Howe, Canton, when he decided to make his 87 rental units and surrounding property in Canton smoke-free in the mid-1980s.

Mr. Howe manages his family’s Canton apartment rental business that’s been around for over 50 years. The business includes 47 units at the Harrison House complex, 49 Judson St., and 36 units at Canton Town Houses on Ike Noble Road.

Mr. Howe said that in the early 80s, his family undertook major improvements to their apartments, but within a year smoke had left its mark.

He said his family found cigarette burns all over the brand-new carpets, and the walls and cabinets all smelled of smoke.

“It created extra work for us, so I concluded that we would go smoke-free,” he said. “With 87 rental units, we have enough work to do without adding any extra.”

Mr. Howe said he had to change the lease to add a bold-print clause stating that smoking and excessive candle use were not permitted in the apartments or on the property.

“The vast majority were non-smokers, and smokers had the choice to either quit or move,” he said. “The majority embraced the switch and now there’s less wear and tear, less work required when we turn over an apartment.”

For Mr. Marlow, it’s “an uphill battle.”

“I’m in a fight to come to some kind of compromise with the housing authority,” he said.

He said he’d like to see a separate building for smokers and one for nonsmokers, but Katherine F. Allott, executive director of the Massena Housing Authority, said the complex is “not big enough to do that.”

“We would love our apartments to be smoke-free because there is a lot of damage caused by smoke,” she said. “But it’s a matter of compliance, and we don’t have the staffing to have someone policing people to make sure they don’t smoke.”

Ms. Allott said the common rooms, hallways and stairwells in their apartment complexes are smoke-free, and people who smoke outside need to be at least 25 feet from the building so the smoke doesn’t enter other tenants’ windows.

Ms. Allott said part of the authority’s funding comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“I hope Mr. Todd is successful with his initiative. It’s just hard when our operating funds get cut more and more each year,” she said. “I think at some point in time HUD will mandate smoke-free housing.”

Mr. Todd said he doesn’t expect policies to be adopted right away, but he hopes landlords and housing authorities will reach out to him to discuss how to go smoke-free.

“I would like to see them begin to look at the benefits of smoke-free facilities,” he said.

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