NAPLES — It's a tough sell convincing property managers and landlords to ban smoking in rentals.
The state Department of Health is in its second year of an initiative to encourage smoke-free housing. Although successes are few, tobacco prevention coordinators are staying the course.
"In Collier County, it's been really slow going," said Rachel Brandhorst, a health educator with the Collier County Public Health Department. "The problem is a lot of properties are (owned) by corporations and property managers cannot make a policy change."
She knows of one rental property in Immokalee for people 55 and older that is smoke-free. A survey in September of 57 properties found some complexes prohibit smoking at the community pools or in the mailbox areas.
In Lee County, at least four rental properties don't allow smoking in the premises out of 80 properties surveyed in September, Lee Health Department spokeswoman Diane Holm said. After a recent program about smoke-free housing, nothing happened.
"We didn't get any bites," Holm said. "We had interest, a lot of interest from the managers but they just didn't feel comfortable to implement it. They know it's less expensive to (be) smoke-free."
On the other hand, all public housing properties with the Lee County Housing Authority are required to go smoke-free as of Jan. 1, 2013, she said.
Data is on the side of a smoking ban and the challenge is educating property owners about higher costs of cleaning vacated units after smokers leave. In addition, smoking is considered a lifestyle choice so smokers aren't protected under federal law against discrimination.
"A lot of landlords don't realize that smokers are not a protected class. There are no rights to smoke in (your) home," said Mary Petiprin, the tobacco prevention specialist with the Orange County Health Department in Central Florida. "Landlords have a right to say, 'You cannot smoke in the property' but cannot say 'I won't rent to you because you are a smoker.'"
Petiprin expects more property owners in due time will move toward smoking prohibitions, likely by starting with a handful of buildings in large complexes.
The trend is similar to how Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment banning smoking indoors, including in restaurants, which took effect in 2003, she said. That caused discontent among some restaurant owners but is the accepted norm these days.
The smoking rate among adults in Florida declined to 17 percent in 2010 compared to 21 percent in 2006, according to the state health department. The National Center for Healthy Housing reports several statewide surveys found 78 percent of tenants would prefer smoke-free housing.
Second-hand smoke easily travels from one apartment to another, through air-conditioning vents and ducts, spaces between walls and electrical outlets. It's possible that 65 percent of air can be exchanged between rental units, according to a study by the Minneapolis-based Center for Energy and Environment.
"If you can smell it, you are taking in those toxins," Brandhorst said.
Smoking bans can be just inside units or include all of the grounds. Another avenue is designating a handful of buildings in the larger complexes for non-smokers.
An Immokalee property
Bromelia Place, a 30-unit complex in Immokalee for individuals 55 and older, went smoke-free a couple of years ago but tenants can smoke on the grounds, said Angela Edison, the property manager. The policy was started by a previous manager.
"It's going fine, people are complying," Edison said.
One tenant who smoked moved out but the majority of residents don't smoke, she said. Many had moved there to get away from other properties that had allowed smoking inside the apartments, she said.
Edison also sits on the Southwest Florida Apartment Association and has learned that property managers want to see how the policy works out at Bromelia Place over the long term before taking the plunge.
"A lot of them are afraid. They don't want to rock the boat," she said.
Brandhorst, with the Collier health department, tells property managers at educational programs that 83 percent of Florida residents don't smoke. One option is for the larger complexes to take the "baby step" of designating a few buildings as smoke-free and see how it goes, she said.
The Central Florida-based Concord Management Ltd., which owns four apartment complexes in Collier, doesn't have any smoking prohibition rules in Florida and the eight other states where it owns properties, said Lori Trainer, vice president of public relations. The four local Concord properties are Brittany Bay, Heron Park, Ospreys Landing and Windsong Club.
The results showed a smoking prohibition isn't something tenants want, she said.
"It certainly is a trend (I've) read recently in an industry magazine," Trainer said. "We are keeping an eye on it and it isn't something we have ruled out."
When and if Concord makes a move, it would likely be phased in with designating some buildings smoke-free, she said.
The cleanup costs for apartments from tenants who had smoked are much higher, studies have found.
Smoke-Free Housing New England put out a report in 2009 that the cost of a general cleanup — paint, flooring, cleaning appliances and bathrooms ran $560 for a nonsmoker vs. $1,800 for a light smoker and $3,515 for a heavy smoker.
Trainer, with Concord Management, said the cleanup costs after a smoker doesn't add that much to the overall cost of the cleanup.
"Our experience is there's more damage by pets than smokers," she said.
The Jacksonville-based owner of a 130-unit complex there ended up gutting an apartment after a heavy-smoking tenant of 15 years moved out, said Petiprin, with the Orange health department. After that, the property owner instituted the no-smoking policy.
"They had to spend $15,000 to gut it and start over to make it livable again," she said. "It was a no-brainer for them."