Metro

Cambridge Housing Authority bans smoking in its buildings

CAMBRIDGE — Over objections that they would be forcing elderly smokers out into the cold, Cambridge Housing Authority commissioners voted Wednesday to ban smoking in their buildings, joining Boston and other cities that are snuffing out cigarettes in public housing.

The 3-to-1 vote drew shouts of “Shame on you” and “Where do you get off?” from opponents of the ban, which they argue invades the privacy of the home.

“I’m a smoker; I’m not a criminal,” said Jon Brehm, 60, who said he has been smoking since he was 11.

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The policy adopted by the Board of Commissioners is scheduled to be implemented by Aug. 1, 2014. The authority will designate smoking areas at least 25 feet from any doors or windows.

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Residents will have to sign lease addendums that include the smoke-free policy. Violators face a series of oral and written warnings; by the fourth offense, they could face legal action.

Commissioners approved a fast-track process that would allow the smoking ban to be implemented sooner at buildings where tenants call for an election and a ban wins support, said Susan Cohen, general counsel for the authority.

In 2011, the Boston Housing Authority made Boston the largest US city to ban smoking in public housing. That ban took effect in September 2012. Boston’s policy was aimed at protecting nonsmokers, especially children, from secondhand smoke.

The Cambridge authority has cited similar concerns. In January, it did a survey; 538 residents, about 21.5 percent of the authority’s tenants, responded. Seventy-nine percent of the respondents said they preferred smoke-free housing.

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Cohen said there is tremendous support for the ban, despite vocal opponents.

Victoria Bergland, the lone vote against the ban, called the policy harsh and said she is concerned that elderly tenants will have to go outside to smoke during the winter.

And the ban does not provide enough time for people who have been smoking for 30 or 40 years to kick the habit, she said. “It hurts me to my heart for this to be able to go through so quickly.”

Gregory Russ, the authority’s executive director, said the policy allows for latitude in regard to tenants who violate the smoking policy but discuss their habit with the staff.

“Even if the fourth violation occurs, there is still an opportunity to work in a way that we feel is very balanced and fair,” Russ said.

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Stephen Helfer, 66, who lives in Cambridge but is not a tenant of the authority, attended the meeting Wednesday and shouted “shame on you” at the board after the vote.

Helfer said that he is a smokers’ rights advocate and that it disturbs him that the authority wants to ban smoking in people’s homes, especially when the ban will force the elderly to smoke outside.

“Telling them that they have to go out in the snow at night to have a cigarette seems to have no public health purpose,” he said.

Brock Parker can be reached at brock.globe@gmail.com.