Saturday, October 11, 2008

A smoker's home - a public place?

An October 4, 2008 article in the Toronto Star advises that: “Landlords and tenants are joining movement to get smokers to butt-out in their homes.”

What they mean, of course, is that landlords and tenants are being pressured to adopt “no smoking” clauses in their leasing and rental agreements in an effort to force smokers to quit. In this case the pressure is apparently coming from the Non-Smokers Rights Association (NSRA).

The author of the piece, Jennifer Brown, uses a 53-unit, four-storey housing complex to make her point that practically everyone in Ontario is demanding smoke-free housing. Says Ms. Brown: “And since it opened in July 2006, the building on Cummer Ave. in North York has had no problem with vacancies.

She goes on: “In fact, the building of about 150 tenants, which offers three, two and one-bedroom apartments, has a waiting list. It is home to families, seniors and single people with mixed incomes.”

I suspect that’s actually a truthful claim. It’s just not the whole truth.

The fact is that all non-profit housing complexes, housing co-operatives and other forms of social housing in the city of Toronto have extensive waiting lists, whether they are smoke-free or not. In most cases the waiting lists are very long because these types of housing are heavily reliant on government subsidy. Filling vacancies is seldom a concern in this sector of the housing market.

The article notes that the 2007 Canadian Tobacco Use Monitoring Survey shows ”that about 75 per cent of all Canadian households, including smokers who reside in those households, no longer smoke inside the homes.” That sounds impressive until you realize that only 20% of Canadians over the age of 15 are smokers. When you understand that the vast majority of the 75% who have made their homes smoke-free are non-smokers, it’s a lot less impressive; and much more suggestive of personal bias against smokers.

The article quotes Pippa Beck, of the NSRA, who chairs the Canadian Smoke-Free Housing Group: "It's not a huge shift to formalize what most people are already doing."

Ms. Beck conveniently ignores the fact that Canada has over five million smokers and that they are just as entitled to a decent place to live as non-smokers. Under the current situation, some smokers have chosen to make their homes smoke-free. Formalizing “what most people are doing” removes the right to choose. It translates to dictating what people can do in the privacy of their own home.

Also ignored is the fact that there’s a world of difference between single family homes and multi-unit dwellings.

A smoker in a single family home can create a smoking zone in a garage or workshop, for example. Smokers living in multi-unit buildings have no such option. This is especially true in the example used in the Star article where the entire property is smoke-free. The only option is to leave the property entirely.

Ever mindful of the need to avoid any appearance that smokers are being discriminated against, the article notes: “However, a smoke-free housing policy does not prevent smokers from renting accommodation. Just as smokers are asked to step outside public places and workplaces for a cigarette, a smoke-free housing policy requires them to do the same.” Uh-huh.

Forgotten is the fact that a person’s housing is not a public place. It’s a private dwelling, whether it’s a single family unit or a high rise apartment building. It’s a private home. And, no one should be permitted to dictate what an individual may or may not do in the privacy of his/her home, provided the activity in which they are engaging is legal.

Says Ms. Brown in her article: “Smokers can live in smoke-free multi-unit dwellings as long as they follow the rules like everyone else.” Uh-huh. That’s very considerate of her. Follow the Rules made by anti-smokers which intrude on the autonomy and privacy of smokers or else. And, if they don’t do as they’re told? Chuck them out?

To convince landlords that it’s in their best business interests to include smoke-free clauses in their lease and agreements, the NSRA Smoking and Health Action Foundation claims that landlords report that it typically costs two-to-three times as much to turn over a unit where heavy smoking has occurred as it does for a non-smoking unit.

That’s a report I’d like to read; assuming one exists. The NSRA has been known to bend the truth somewhat in their efforts to de-normalize and demean smokers.

But, in my talks with landlords, it has been suggested that the factors contributing most to the cost of refurbishing a unit to rental condition are excessive wear and tear, often due to neglect. Were the floors and carpets cleaned on a regular basis, for example? Were appliances cleaned regularly? Were maintenance issues reported to management promptly, or were they allowed to deteriorate to unacceptable levels? What time frames are we talking about; one year, two years, five years?

All of these issues can be more significant factors in the cost of refurbishing a unit than smoking.

In fact, to the best of my knowledge, the issue of additional cost to maintain or refurbish rental units occupied by smokers has not been raised until recently. It didn’t become an issue until it was raised by the NSRA and other members of the anti-smoker brigade.

Jennifer Brown’s article in the Star runs to roughly 1,000 words. Anyone reading this biased, lopsided piece of journalism is left to believe that there is only one side to the story. Only information supportive of the views of the NSRA position was quoted. No other point of view was presented.

But, that’s typical of the press when it comes to the issue of secondhand smoke. They can’t have the public believing there might be another side to the story. The public might get wise to the fact that the science behind the alleged hazards of secondhand smoke is neither clear nor unequivocal.

Their job, apparently, is to act as a cheerleading section for anti-smoker crusaders like the NSRA.

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