Health advocates are cheering a new policy that will ban smoking in public housing in Merced County next year, but for longtime smokers who’ve made their homes in the subsidized facilities, the news is a nightmare.
Earlier this year, the Merced County Housing Authority decided to ban smoking indoors and in outdoor common areas on 421 of its housing units. Tenants began receiving notices this month about the change that will take effect on Jan. 1, 2016.
This week, I sat down with a few residents in the McDowell Manor senior complex located on Park Avenue in Merced, operated by the Merced County Housing Authority. Many of these tenants have been smokers for decades, and some have been living in public housing for several years.
Smoking in their homes had never been a problem, they said, and they didn’t understand why it needed to start being an issue now.
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Tenants who voiced their concerns chose not to be identified in fear of repercussions, they said.
One of the tenants, a 70-year-old woman, said she has been feeling anxious ever since she received notice of the new policy. Like many of the tenants in the complex, she lives alone. She doesn’t have family left, and besides her caregiver, no one visits her, she said. Television and cigarettes are her main interest.
She picked up smoking at the age of 13. She said she has tried to quit several times, using patches, treatments and even attempting to go cold turkey. But nothing has ever worked. After almost 60 years of smoking, she doesn’t believe anything will help her quit.
The new smoke-free policy, officials made clear, does not prohibit tenants from smoking outside the property. Residents can smoke on a sidewalk off public housing grounds, for example. But for residents with limited mobility, this is not always an option.
Some smoke inside their home, but most go no farther than their doorstep. Lighting up a cigarette with their neighbors and making small talk is the most socializing some of these residents do, they shared.
Tylene Hose is a caregiver of three different seniors, all smokers who live in public housing. Hose said the seniors she cares for are aware that smoking is not healthy, but it’s a habit that brings them comfort. One of the seniors, she said, is starting to show signs of depression and is worriedly counting the days to the new year.
“Their home is suppose to be their castle, the place where they feel most comfortable,” Hose said. “They’re afraid of what’s going to happen.”
According to the notice that tenants received from the housing authority, a violation of the tobacco-free policy will be considered a violation of the residential lease. The first three violations will result in warnings in which residents will be offered smoking-cessation materials. In the fourth violation, the notice states, tenants will be issued a 30-day lease termination letter.
The Housing Authority in Merced County is the newest to join the list of public housing agencies that have adopted a smoke-free policy. Twenty-six other housing authorities in the state have some version of such a rule, including those in Madera, Kern, Fresno and San Joaquin counties.
The push for such policies comes amid an effort to protect the health of tenants and the overall community.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides funding to public housing, has endorsed smoke-free policies and has provided housing authorities with tool kits on how to go about implementing these rules.
Stephanie Nathan, a program manager at the Merced County Department of Public Health who has worked alongside the local housing authority officials in bringing this change about, said the smoke-free policy is evidence based. This means that agencies that have adopted smoke-free policies have reported that the new rule does encourage people to try to quit smoking.
Nathan pointed out that only about 12 percent of Californians are smokers, meaning 88 percent are not. Tobacco-free policies help protect the health of the majority.
“Especially in senior complexes ... there may be a smoker in one unit and a person with an oxygen tank next door,” Nathan said. “We know a fairly large amount (of residents) report smoke drifting into their units.”
Currently, public health officials are ramping up their outreach and education efforts to help residents quit smoking. If residents in an apartment complex express enough interest, the public health department can provide classes on site, Nathan explained.
“These policies are about creating healthier environments for all residents,” Nathan said.
The elderly at McDowell complex understand this, but it doesn’t take away from their fear. Public housing is what they can afford, and in three months, their home security may be put at risk because of a habit they can’t seem to break.
To learn more about the health department’s efforts, call 209-381-1200.