The City Council has called on the General Assembly to enact legislation that would classify multi-family rental developments throughout the state as non-smoking areas.
In its first business meeting since inaugural ceremonies the night before, the council engaged in a lively debate over the dangers of secondhand smoke and the power of government to restrict it.
The issue arose after Christina Ginolfi, a non-smoker and constituent of Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur, complained of the odor of smoke in her apartment and potential danger it could pose to her and her child. Ladouceur talked with Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla, who introduced a resolution calling on state lawmakers to enact a ban on smoking in apartment complexes. It was co-sponsored by Ladouceur, Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix, Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis and Ward 7 Councilman Steve McAllister.
The resolution states secondhand smoke drifts from neighboring housing units, patios, balconies and common areas into nonsmokers’ units through windows, doors and shared ventilation systems. It also states that secondhand smoke can filter into units through wall cracks, light fixtures, electrical wiring, plumbing and baseboards.
But the resolution left many questions unanswered.
Ward 1 Councilman asked how the legislation would categorize the smoking of marijuana for medical purposes and e-cigarettes. Would it apply to hotels? The resolution also doesn’t address what is a multi-unit rental housing development. Would the law apply to duplexes?
Merolla said the resolution was purposely left open-ended, leaving it to the state to define the specifics of the law. The intent, he said, is to help those who are “held captive [to the exposure of secondhand smoke] in their units.”
The dangers of secondhand smoke are recognized in a Nov. 30, 2016 directive from the Department of Housing and Urban Development requiring Public Housing Agencies to implement a smoke-free policy for all of their public housing. According to HUD, more than 600 public housing authorities in 44 states have already implemented such a policy. The Warwick Housing Authority is one of them.
The council resolution cites a Brown University study released last month that found an overall 17 percent reduction in the number of children visiting emergency departments in metropolitan areas that had enacted indoor smoking bans in public areas. Additionally, the resolution states that secondhand smoke is estimated to kill about 50,000 non-smokers in the United States annually; smoking causes about 438,000 deaths each year and more than $167 billion in annual health-related economic losses.
A contractor and former president of the Rhode Island Builders Association, Ladouceur said he hasn’t heard any objections to the prohibition of smoking in multi-unit rental complexes. However, Ladouceur wouldn’t support legislation to ban smoking in owner-occupied dwellings.
“I’m not going to have government in my living room,” he said.
The resolution doesn’t address whether the law would apply to condominium complexes where privately-owned units share common walls.
Like Merolla, Ladouceur feels the issue of prohibiting smoking in rental units should be addressed at the state level and it is for those legislators to sort out the details.