SmokingOutsideBy Gary Fitzgerald 

Everywhere in her Manhattan apartment building, Glenda Thomas can smell cigarette smoke.

“It seeps through walls and into my apartment – I might as well be in the same room as the smoker,” she says. “I smell it when I walk down the hallway. I even smell it in the lobby where there’s a ‘No Smoking’ sign posted.”

Thomas was diagnosed with asthma in childhood – she is in her 50s now – and secondhand smoke has always been a trigger. She has lived in the apartment building, which is privately owned, for 30 years. It’s poorly ventilated and the smoking ban is not enforced. The landlord has not been helpful, so she’s exploring her options – moving is not possible at this time.

“I keep my air purifier on at high speed 24/7,” Thomas says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 58 million Americans are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke.

When inhaled, tobacco smoke irritates airways and causes the lungs to produce more mucus. Tobacco smoke also weakens tiny hairs called cilia in the lungs and airways that sweep away mucus and other irritants that cause respiratory problems, especially for people with asthma.

Secondhand smoke is particularly harmful to children with still-developing lungs and the elderly. It’s more prevalent in African-American communities, according to CDC; nearly half of African-American nonsmokers are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke, including 7 in 10 children. For more on secondhand smoke, visit

Thank You For Not Smoking

In rental units, typically multi-unit housing, 36.8 percent of nonsmokers are exposed to secondhand smoke, according to CDC.

“A common misconception is if a smoker sets a towel under the door or turns on a fan, neighbors in an apartment building won’t be bothered by the secondhand smoke,” says Kara Skahen, program director for Live Smoke Free, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit. “Smoke can easily move through cracks in walls, electrical systems and ventilation, causing asthma flares and respiratory symptoms.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently proposed a rule to require public housing agencies to prohibit smoking in living units, offices, common areas and outdoor areas that are within 25 feet of housing or office buildings.

Avoidance Strategies

  • Do not allow others to smoke in your home or car, even with windows open.
  • If your state allows smoking in public places, eat in restaurants that do not allow smoking. (“No Smoking” sections do not protect you from secondhand smoke.)
  • Enroll your child in daycare and schools that are tobacco-free.
  • Teach your child to stay away from secondhand smoke.

If you live in rental and/or multi-unit housing, HUD recommends:

  • Meet with the property manager and neighbors who smoke and politely explain how secondhand smoke worsens your asthma.
  • Ask the property manager to establish “reasonable accommodations” that would establish smoking restrictions.
  • Ask your doctor for written documentation of your medical condition to give to the property manager.
  • If no action is taken, you may be eligible to file a housing discrimination case with HUD.

Reviewed by Peyton Eggleston, MD and Eileen Censullo, RRT