MID CITY — Natalie Lewis is 79 years old, and she fears for her life.

Lewis lives in a small studio in the 285-unit Westminster Towers, a seniors-only housing complex funded through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Her next door neighbor is a smoker, and every time he lights a cigarette, Lewis becomes stressed at the thought of the smoke which seeps through the walls and pervades her own home.

Lewis is a self-proclaimed fitness addict who spends more time running up and down the stairs on Adelaide Drive than most people a quarter of her age. She is a vegetarian, and eats mostly raw vegetables in an attempt to stay healthy.

She smoked cigarettes in her youth, but gave them up when she turned 42 and began running on a regular basis. When she was 50, Lewis ran across the country, averaging 43 miles a day and breaking her way into the Guinness Book of World Records.

Her sister died two years ago from lung cancer. Health is important to her, and Lewis refuses to go down because of somebody else’s toxic secondhand smoke.

“It has to happen sometime, but I’m not going to have it be something that I’m already aware of,” Lewis said.

A measure on the docket for the City Council aims to help people like Lewis by changing the rules for multi-unit housing to allow residents to designate their unit smoking or nonsmoking.

After a tenant moves out or dies, however, the unit would become nonsmoking automatically in most cases. Under the plan, eventually there would be no smoking units left in Santa Monica.

The goal is to protect non-smokers from the health impacts of secondhand smoke, which has been categorized as a known carcinogen and can also increase risk of heart disease in people who have never lit up.

Cigarette smoke has been proven to seep through air ducts and doorjambs, infiltrating adjacent units and causing health problems amongst children and adults alike.

According to a memo released by HUD, the federal agency that owns Lewis’ building, “separating smokers from nonsmokers, cleaning the air and ventilating buildings cannot eliminate exposure of nonsmokers to secondhand smoke.”

The agency encouraged property managers to use smoke-free policies that pertain specifically to their buildings, and left the option to make the buildings completely smoke-free.

Local officials debated the measure at a meeting in December, ultimately banning smoking in newly-constructed hotels, but postponing a decision on multi-unit housing for 90 days.

Some councilmembers argued that smoking was a legal activity and that a ban could be used against residents in affordable housing by landlords wanting to evict them and raise rents to market rate. The policy also raised privacy concerns, because it required smokers to publicly identify themselves.

Others, including councilmembers Bobby Shriver and Bob Holbrook, maintained that a smoker’s rights did not trump another tenant’s right to health.

The courts have never affirmed a “right to smoke,” said Esther Schiller, director of the Smokefree Apartments Registry, and creating smoke-free places helps smokers and nonsmokers alike.

According to the American Lung Association, 70 percent of smokers express some desire to quit, Schiller said.

“We have smoke-free bars, parks and beaches. The idea is not to remind the person of the smell of the smoke. It’s easier to quit without these reminders,” Schiller said.

Holbrook, a pharmacist, agreed.

“It will force people to say, ‘Darnit, I’ll give it up so I can keep my apartment,’” he said at the Dec. 13 council meeting. “We have to have the guts to save lives.”

Smoking is prohibited in most places in Santa Monica, including buildings, bars, patios and other shared spaces in multi-unit housing. That leaves the option of taking your cigarette out on a walk, Schiller said.

“Walking and smoking, that’s what people should be doing,” Schiller said.

Fred, Lewis’ neighbor, does not agree. He didn’t want to give his last name for the article.

Although Lewis characterized him as a chain smoker, Fred said that he smokes relatively little, and keeps the window open to try to vent the smoke.

“Anybody can smoke in their home, or anything else they want to do,” Fred said. “This is where I live. You should be able to do what you do in your own home.”

That’s scant comfort for Lewis.

She drafted a statement summarizing her emotions about her living conditions, describing the fear she has for her health if she continues to be exposed to secondhand smoke.

“I know I won’t live forever, but as my place exists today I don’t think that I will last much longer,” she wrote.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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