What you need to know about your neighbor’s secondhand smoke – and what you can do about it

No Smoking Sign
Secondhand smoke is a known carcinogen, according to the U.S. surgeon general. (Kristaps Solims/Unsplash)

By Erin Warwood
Medill Reports

When a neighbor’s tobacco smoke keeps coming into your space, you may wonder what you can do to stop it – and you should.

A 2020 study of German adults who had never smoked and self-reported at least an hour of secondhand smoke exposure per day were 59% more likely to be depressed than those who reported no exposure. Researchers, who published their results in BMC Public Health, noted that there are a few possible underlying mechanisms. For instance, secondhand smoke may reduce levels of mood-regulating neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.

Though more studies are needed to clarify the relationship between secondhand smoke and depression, “the U.S. surgeon general has confirmed there is no safe level of exposure,” said Liz Williams, a project and policy manager at the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation.

In fact, secondhand smoke exposure is estimated to cause 41,000 deaths among adults every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

If you’re suddenly anxious about what you’re inhaling, take a deep breath: Experts weigh in on the questions you might have if you’re struggling with secondhand smoke exposure.

Are there rules against smoking in multiunit housing?

“HUD [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] now requires all public housing buildings to be smoke-free,” Williams said. She also noted that some communities in California have passed citywide or countywide laws requiring multiunit housing complexes to go 100% smoke-free, and some states’ laws prohibit smoking in the common areas of these buildings. If your state or community hasn’t yet followed suit, your building needs to adopt its own policy.

So it’s legal for buildings to ban smoking?

Yes. It’s not discriminatory, Williams said. In fact, many buildings throughout the country are smoke-free.

How do I know if my building – or a building that I might move into – has a nonsmoking policy?

Check your lease or the covenants, conditions and restrictions for the homeowners association. If a policy exists, it should mention smoking, Williams said. Beware of vague rules: “If it says nuisance, but doesn’t say ‘no smoking’ specifically, then you don’t really want to trust that that would cover the situation if the neighbor’s smoke is drifting,” she advised.

If your building does have a policy, the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation offers enforcement tips for managers. It also tries to support smokers and help them find a way to comply, Williams said.

If these policies don’t exist for my building, should I talk to my neighbor directly?

Not so fast. You want to stay away from what could be an aggressive confrontation (and avoid unnecessary interaction during the pandemic). “I do think getting management involved when it’s a situation that you consider offensive is the best route to take,” said Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert, author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life” and founder of The Protocol School of Texas.

So I should talk to management?

Definitely. Your landlord might not even know there’s a problem, Williams said. “The first thing that we recommend that people do is to keep a log.” Keep a written record of when and where you’re smelling smoke so you can pick up on patterns. Then, share that information with your landlord in writing, along with how it’s affecting your ability to use the property, Williams suggested. And include your specific ask: Are you hoping the whole building will go smoke-free, or do you want a less restrictive policy, such as no smoking on balconies?

Gottsman also advised asking about next steps and about a timeframe for results. Then, follow up once every week so the problem doesn’t get overlooked.

What if I know the neighbor who’s smoking? Can’t I just work it out with them?

The short answer? Yes. But Gottsman recommended approaching the situation prepared to build an ally, not an opponent. Suggest collaborating to find a solution that works for both of you.

What shouldn’t I say to them?

If you approach your neighbors and place all blame on them rather than the factors neither of you can control (like poor ventilation), you might offend them, according to Gottsman. Tempted to tell them how they’re harming their health by smoking? Don’t go there, she said. Stick to the problem: the smoke coming in your apartment.

This seems like a lot of work. Can I just get a new place?

Generally, you can only break a lease over landlord misconduct – but management can voluntarily let you out of your lease, said Laurie Mikva, clinical assistant professor of law at Northwestern University. Work out an agreement (in writing!) with your landlord. It’s better than breaking the lease and potentially going to court for unpaid rent, according to Mikva.

Looks like I’m stuck here for the time being. What else I can try?

Gottsman suggested making your stay more comfortable. For example, you can buy certain plants that help keep indoor air clean. If you’re interested in purchasing an air purifier, check out these recommendations from The New York Times.

Bottom line: You have options. But there might not be a quick fix for the fumes. “Know that you probably have a journey ahead of you,” Gottsman said.

Erin Warwood is a reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at@erinwarwood.