Clear the Air with Smoke-free Apartments

Smoke-free living can be positioned as a highly desired amenity.

By James Campbell |

3 minute read

Tobacco has deep roots in U.S. history, and entered a widespread cultural trend in the 1950s and 1960s. The National Apartment Association’s latest webinar, “Clear the Air on Smoke-free Apartments,” presented on March 7, provided a brief background of smoking since that time and how smoking can impact residents and their communities.

It featured presentations from three speakers with extensive experience in this space: Carleen Crawford, Regional Tobacco Control Manager for North Carolina Health Region 4, covering 11 counties; Anna Stein, Legal Specialist with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services; and Scott Wilkerson, Chief Investment Officer at Ginkgo Residential.

Wilkerson began the webinar by explaining the cultural trends in smoking followed by charts showing the decline of smoking across the U.S. population from 45% in 1954 to just 11% in 2022—once tobacco advertising was progressively banned and various public and private entities began implementing smoking bans on premises. 

Crawford explained the profound impact upon society of 18 separate U.S. Surgeons’ General reports on tobacco, from 1964 (lung cancer in men) to 2020 (smoking cessation). She presented a medical perspective of the damages to the human body from smoking, and the health consequences of secondhand smoke. Her conclusion was that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke and its 7,000 chemicals.

Crawford and Wilkerson described how smoke moves through buildings to where all residents become affected. Moreover, they explained the harm from “thirdhand smoke,” the toxic residue that accumulates on surfaces from smoking, and how expensive it can be for property managers to fully remove upon vacancy. Merely re-painting a unit is insufficient. These same chemicals are also present in the aerosols from e-cigarettes and “vapes.”

Wilkerson listed current trends towards smoke-free spaces and apartments, presenting surveys that 75% of prospective residents prefer smoke-free apartments, and 50% would pay extra for this opportunity. Thus, smoke-free living can be positioned as a highly desired amenity. Wilkerson also quantified the financial benefits to property owners from lower maintenance costs and turnover costs, running into thousands of dollars per apartment. 

For Wilkerson’s company, the primary driver for implementing smoke-free policies was the safety risk, trauma, and expensive property damage from fires caused by improper disposal of smoking materials, typically on balconies and porches. Smoking in homes remains a leading cause of fires across the U.S. and the number one cause of fire deaths. Wilkerson cited how smoke-free apartments reduce liabilities for property owners from their residents’ exposure to smoke.

Stein addressed these legal issues, explaining how there is no constitutional protection for smokers and smoking in apartments. Marijuana smoking and vaping similarly lack such protection. She explained the legal basis for implementing smoke-free policies, plus how to handle any reasonable accommodation requests under the Fair Housing Act. 

Wilkerson and Crawford concluded the webinar with how to effectively implement smoke-free policies. Strategies included educating staff and vendors to obtain their buy-in, surveying residents for feedback and direction; then finalizing and communicating these policies with sufficient notice to all whom they apply including guests, vendors and employees. Brochures, signage and maps are important components. Smoke-free policies must also include how violations will be handled. An important distinction to make is that these policies are not discriminating against smokers, but rather against smoking behavior within specified parameters. They apply equally to everyone.

James Campbell is Senior Manager, Industry Operations with NAA.

Watch “Clear the Air on Smoke-free Apartments.”