Subscribe for 33¢ / day

You are sitting in your home, about to watch a movie with your children on a chilly Friday evening. You have a bowl of popcorn in your lap and your two kids nuzzled next to you on the couch. As you go to push “play” on your remote, your neighbor in the apartment next door lights up a cigarette. Suddenly, your lungs, and your kids’ lungs are filled with secondhand smoke.

Tobacco smoke knows no boundaries and can cause virtually the same negative health effects among innocent and unwilling bystanders as it does to the smoker. A new initiative here in Wisconsin called Clear Gains was organized to turn multi-unit housing like private apartments and public housing into smoke-free environments. The effort is focused on convincing property managers and owners to voluntarily adopt smoke-free policies that will give their residents a healthier and safer place to live.

The culprit is secondhand smoke: a mixture of gases and fine particles in the smoke from cigarettes, cigars, or pipes, or smoke that is exhaled by the smoker and inhaled by a nearby nonsmoker. It has been linked to respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, asthma and cancer.

Your effort to maintain a smoke-free home won’t succeed because 60 percent of air in apartments is recycled from other units. The smoke exhaled by your neighbor will travel through air vents, baseboards, electrical outlets and light fixtures, and arrive in your home even if you can’t see or smell it. The bottom line is that if your apartment building permits smoking, there’s not much you can do to avoid exposure.

Maintaining smoke-free buildings can pay off for owners as well as occupants. For example, the clean-up of smoke odor and residue can cost two to three times as much as cleaning up a smoke-free unit. Smoke-free policies also significantly lower the risk of smoking-related fires. From 2005-2011 in Madison, smoking-related fires resulted in about $4.9 million in damages and property loss to multi-unit apartments alone.

There’s also the matter of health equity, which means making sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to be healthy. In Wisconsin, about one-third of multiple-unit housing residents live below the poverty line, which means that many rely on public assistance housing. In Madison, approximately 1,364 households are in this category and almost all live in buildings that allow smoking. Even though 75.7 percent of Wisconsin residents living in both public and private housing don’t allow smoking in their homes, most of them will be exposed to secondhand smoke. In other words, their housing situation denies them an equal opportunity to be healthy.

As Madison as it gets: Get Cap Times' highlights sent daily to your inbox

It simply makes good sense for Wisconsin property owners to voluntarily implement smoke-free policies. While smokers would have to make the same accommodations in their home that they are already used to making in the work place and in public places, the payoff is a safer, healthier and more equitable environment for their neighbors.

For more information about the Wisconsin Clear Gains smoke-free multi-unit housing effort, go to

Ryan Sheahan is coordinator for the Tobacco-Free Columbia Dane County Coalition.