A 2015 policy change had led to a reduction in the airborne nicotine levels in Philadelphia public housing, a Drexel University study indicates.
Ann Klassen came to the Dornsife School of Public Health in 2011 and was awarded the Community Transformation Grant shortly afterwards by the Center for Disease Control to further research about the effects of secondhand smoke/airborne nicotine, especially in multi-unit housing. The Secondhand Smoke Exposure Assessment Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University provided Klassen with smoke monitors, which she placed in Philadelphia homes with residents’ permission beginning in 2013.
In 2015, the Philadelphia Housing Authority implemented a no-smoking policy in multi-unit housing complexes. The research team returned once the PHA implemented the no-smoking policy in multi-unit homes and monitored the amount of airborne nicotine. In just one year, the airborne nicotine decreased from it’s original level of 0.44 micrograms per cubic meter in 2013 to 0.23 in 2016.
The Philadelphia Department of Public Health was most concerned with multi-unit housing, high rises and private housing supported by the PHA, which housed over 80,000 people at the time.
After obtaining results, the research team sent educational letters to the families or individuals participating in the study, explaining what the results said about the quality of their air.
“People expect a certain amount of freedom within their own homes. It has taken citizens a while to understand that like playing loud music, what you do in your home does affect others,” Klassen said when asked why a policy like this had not been implemented sooner.
Klassen acknowledged that carrying out a five-year study could be frustrating at points, especially for the students working on it. As a researcher, she said, it can be frustrating to not see the results of your work. Six of her researchers co-authored the publication and have since gone on or will go on to careers in environmental or human health.
She believes the people most affected by secondhand smoke truly want to be educated and learn how to live a more smoke-free lifestyle, whether they smoke or not.
“People understand that if they smoke, it affects children they may have or the elderly around them and it affects any chronic diseases they may be experiencing. Most people don’t understand how pervasive it is or use strategies that are ineffective,” she said.
The PHA has been trying to reduce secondhand smoke through active involvement with organizing forums, providing free classes on the effects of secondhand smoke and designating areas for people to go smoke outside. Mostly, they’ve been trying to listen to the needs of community members, who largely want to reduce secondhand smoke too.
Despite a significant decline in rates of lung cancer over the past 30 to 40 years and the positive effects of the PHAy’s efforts, Klassen expressed a serious concern that secondhand smoke is still a big issue. The air in Philadelphia is difficult to breathe for those with respiratory conditions, and secondhand smoking makes any chronic respiratory issues worse.
“One positive note is that we have learned communities can change their tobacco use behavior with a good support system. Every incremental change is a positive change,” Klassen said.
Klassen believes that with the rise in popularity of marijuana, future concerns for public health will be dual use of tobacco and marijuana. The way in which people become addicted to tobacco may change, leading to new public health concerns.
However, hundreds of local governments in the U.S. are seeking to replicate the PHA’s success in regards to secondhand smoking, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development has required that all housing authorities in the United States put policies in place that prohibit indoor smoking for multi-unit housing.
“I am not a part of this, but I would support it,” Klassen said.
Klassen advises the Philadelphia community and anyone considering living in multi-unit housing look at any health risks associated with it. She encourages talking to the landlord before moving in, especially for college students who usually live in dormitories or other forms of multi-unit housing.