Esther Schiller, who suffers from extreme asthma, is a clean-air advocate of a particular kind—she crusades for smoke-free housing. Years ago, when cigarette smoke wafted into her classroom at Sun Valley Junior High School, the former teacher said it triggered a severe upper respiratory infection that caused a life-threatening reaction.
“I went into teaching to avoid smoke and it nearly killed me,” says Schiller, who was also born with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a progressive lung disease. In 1992, she won a worker’s compensation case against the L.A. Unified School District and was awarded a $30,000 settlement.
That success inspired her to launch a campaign to protect Angelenos from second-hand smoke where they live. Currently L.A. County prohibits smoking in all new and existing units of public housing developments, but for private apartment owners, it’s voluntary.
“I know what it was like to breathe smoke and get sick. It’s so much worse if it’s in your house,” she says. “People like to think they’re safe if they’re in their home, but maybe not.”
Schiller’s work inspired a partnership, UCLA’s Smoke-free Air for Everyone (SAFE), a three-year UCLA Center for Health Policy Research project that aims to boost the number of smoke-free apartments in targeted, low-income L.A. neighborhoods, from South L.A. to the San Fernando Valley.
L.A. residents who live in multi-unit housing—that’s 56 percent of Latinos and 54 of African-Americans according to the U.S. Census Bureau—are disproportionately exposed. Close proximity means cigarette smoke is more likely to waft in from neighboring units, balconies, and outdoor areas. Low-income tenants have fewer remedies; Moving is less of an option because L.A.’s housing market is tight. The city’s rental unit vacancy rate is only 3 percent, one of the lowest any of the biggest cities in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau.
The owners of apartment buildings in L.A.—who save money by retaining tenants—are largely not resisting the smoke-free policies; they are ignorant of them. As of 2016, the UCLA-SAFE survey of 93 multi-unit properties found that most owners and managers of privately owned apartments and condominiums were in favor of voluntarily adopting the policy. However, 63 percent did not have them in place.
Chipping away at that statistic is Jazmine Guillen’s mission. The manager with the Tobacco Control Program at UCLA, who had a career in the Navy before taking on this challenge, Guillen is methodical about protecting people from environmental health hazards.
In one South L.A. apartment complex, she went door-to-door in 12 buildings to listen to tenants’ frustrations and fears. The landlords at that property needed to be convinced that the pervasive smoke was a problem for tenants. So she surveyed the 1,000 tenants and found that 80 percent of them reported being affected by second-hand smoke. The survey also revealed why the landlords may not have heard that complaint from residents—undocumented immigrants in the buildings were afraid that speaking up would elicit retaliation from their neighbors.
“You can’t tell people what to do in their own home and I’m not the smoking police,” says Guillen, “But it’s the landlord job to create a safe, habitable place.”
Not surprisingly, some of the biggest resisters were the tenants who smoked. When she encountered pushback, Guillen had an abundance of health statistics to make her argument.
“Some people say it’s not such a bad thing and that smoking is legal,” says Guillen. “We say ‘think about your grandkids, your kids and their future.’ They aren’t just harming themselves.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. National Toxicology Program, the U.S. Surgeon General, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have classified secondhand smoke—also called “environmental tobacco smoke, involuntary smoking, and passive smoking”—as a known human carcinogen. Approximately 58 million people in the U.S., or one in four nonsmokers, are exposed to it; an estimated 41,000 nonsmoking adults die as a result of second-hand smoke every year, according a 2015 CDC study.
Exposure to second-hand smoke tobacco products has been linked to heart disease, lung cancer, stroke, severe asthma attacks, and poor respiratory health in nonsmoking adults and children, according to a 2014 National Institutes of Health Study. The U.S. Surgeon General estimates that living with a smoker increases a nonsmoker’s chances of developing lung cancer by 20 to 30 percent. Inhaling smoke can aggravate asthma symptoms in children and put them at increased risk of SIDS, ear infections, colds, pneumonia, and bronchitis. A main point that smoke-free building advocates make is that hazardous tobacco smoke cannot be snuffed out with air filtration and ventilation systems alone. Health studies have found that those devices are not effective at eliminating the particulate matter and cancer-causing gases.
These efforts ultimately moved the FAME Housing Corporation, which owns the South L.A. property, to act in 2016, and they went further than expected. The property owner voluntarily adopted and implemented a policy that prohibits the use of tobacco anywhere on the property, and also marijuana and electronic cigarettes.
One down and hundreds of buildings to go, says Schiller, who has taken the smoke-free fight to City Councils across Southern California. Currently 69 California cities and counties have smoke-free housing policies, according to a report by the Center for Tobacco Control and Organizing.
In Southern California, to name one, Culver City Council passed a comprehensive policy that prohibits smoking in all areas of multi-unit housing. A violation can result in a $1,000 fine. The city of Glendale prohibits smoking in both indoor and outdoor areas, including patios and balconies for new and existing units. There is momentum for other legislative action on city councils across California.
“So often, people continue to be exposed,” says Schiller. “They don’t take it seriously, and then one day they get wake up with a serious illness.”