BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — Public housing is one of the last havens for North Shore smokers. In many communities, the elderly and other residents can still smoke in their apartments or outside on the grounds.
But that, it appears, is about to change.
At the start of this year, the nearly 300 apartments and duplexes overseen by the Danvers Housing Authority went smoke-free. By July, smoking won’t be allowed anywhere on the Danvers properties.
The Marblehead Housing Authority will impose a total smoking ban at the end of this year.
The Ipswich and Hamilton housing authorities have surveyed residents on the issue, the first step toward a smoking ban. The Peabody Housing Authority plans to survey residents this summer.
Beverly and Salem, two of the largest local agencies, haven’t taken up the issue yet, but they are inching forward.
“We are entertaining that idea,” said Carol McGown, director of the Salem Housing Authority. But “it’s at least a year out.” She stressed that there will be tenant surveys and meetings before any action is taken.
On Thursday, Salem Health Agent Larry Ramdin and officials from the North Shore Shared Public Health Service Program, representing eight area communities, will sit down with McGown to discuss smoke-free housing.
The smoking ban in public housing is part of a wider initiative aimed at curbing asthma and other health problems, Ramdin said.
“Secondhand smoke is an asthma trigger,” he said. “And the people who live in multi-unit housing ... (their) health is being negatively impacted as a consequence.”
The no-smoking campaign is also targeting private housing, according to Heather Luciani, coordinator and educator for the health consortium.
Peabody House, a privately owned property in Peabody with elderly and disabled tenants, will be smoke-free on Aug. 1, she said.
Fairweather Apartments in Salem has taken the same step, Ramdin said.
Although smoking is prohibited in bars, restaurants, and most workplaces and public buildings, public housing has been an exception to the rule. But that has been changing. Currently, there are 24 housing authorities in Massachusetts that have gone smoke-free, according to Luciani.
Proposing a smoking ban almost always stirs controversy. A few years ago, the Salem City Council had a heated discussion over a resolution introduced by City Councilor Tom Furey to prohibit smoking in public housing.
During that 2010 debate, one councilor said it was a “basic right” for residents of the Salem Housing Authority to smoke in their own apartments. Others agreed, including at least one official from the Salem Housing Authority.
Housing authority officials either have heard or expect to hear those same arguments again.
“I would say that feeling is still prevalent — that’s it’s their place, their apartment,” said Kevin Ascolillo, executive director of the Beverly Housing Authority. “But secondhand smoke is an issue; it really is.”
In addition to being a health issue, it is a safety concern. Danvers, for example, had a small fire a few years ago in one of its apartments.
There’s also a cost to smoking. Marblehead had to do extensive renovations to an apartment when a chain-smoker moved out.
“It cost us over $10,000,” said Nancy Marcoux, executive director of the Marblehead Housing Authority.
While one local housing authority has fines for violating the smoking ban, another board created incentives to help residents quit.
“We did kind of a carrot approach instead of a stick,” said Cindy Dunn, executive director of the Danvers Housing Authority. “If you quit smoking for six months, we will repaint your unit; and if you quit for a year, we will replace all the carpets.”
The smoke-free movement gained momentum last week when the Patrick Administration issued guidelines for local housing authorities. The guidelines made clear that authorities can’t force residents to quit smoking or limit applications for public housing to nonsmokers, but they can prohibit smoking in publicly funded apartments.
The state also stressed the need for health education and smoking cessation programs to help residents.
Sooner or later, it appears the smoking issue will be taken up by every housing authority on the North Shore, with more and more going smoke-free.
“I think it’s going to be everywhere,” Marcoux said.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.