WILMONT — One month ago, Westminster Tower, a seniors-only apartment building on Seventh Street, made the papers when an elderly resident reached out, afraid of the effects that a neighbor’s secondhand smoke was having on her health.

Today, Westminster Tower has been declared smokefree to all new residents.

John Bohn, president of the nonprofit organization that runs the facility, Westminster Tower Inc., said that his board agreed to step in to enforce a policy they had passed two years ago to limit the smoking at the residence.

“We passed a nonsmoking guideline in 2010,” Bohn said. “That was fully implemented at Geneva Plaza, the other building we own. It’s been nonsmoking for over a year.”

The same guideline was not put in place at Westminster Tower because, as Bohn said, there were more smokers in that building and there was confusion about the requirements of the federal Housing and Urban Development Department, which helped to finance the building.

“We decided we’d go ahead, even though HUD regulations are not clear on what we can do,” Bohn said. “We’re going to go ahead.”

This won’t change anything for current smokers, who are grandfathered in under the policy, but beefs up 15-year-old restrictions on smoking in community spaces and will transform the residence into a smokefree facility over time.

It’s a change that excited Natalie Lewis.

Lewis, who brought the issue to the attention of the local press in December, is a fitness enthusiast who eats mostly raw vegetables and works out constantly.

She lives in Westminster Tower, and until recently, her neighbor of four months was a smoker.

“I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I was sleeping on the floor. I was quite miserable sleeping on the floor and walking around with a jacket on because my windows were always open.”

Lewis took the unusual step of speaking up, and now she has a new neighbor (the other moved to a different apartment) and the building is becoming smokefree.

“I’m very happy,” she said. “I talk to people who live in these multiunit places and they’re always complaining about it.”

Lewis’ story put a face on the debate taking place at City Hall over whether or not to require all multi-family residences in Santa Monica, be they condominiums or apartments, to go smokefree.

The push comes as mounting medical evidence points to the fact that not only does secondhand smoke kill, it spreads easily, seeping through electrical sockets and shared air conditioning systems to impact smokers and nonsmokers alike.

In November 2011, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health released the results of a study showing that tobacco smoke particles travel through cracks in fixtures, electrical outlets, pipes, vents and baseboards.

As much as 30 to 50 percent of air comes from other units, and particles in units of nonsmokers can reach levels equal to and exceeding those of a smoky bar or casino, according to a press release about the study.

More than 41 percent of housing units in the county are multi-unit structures. Approximately 70 percent of Santa Monicans rent, many of which are in multiunit buildings.

“The science is clear: all units, and all buildings should be nonsmoking,” said Esther Schiller, director of Smokefree Apartment House Registry.

Santa Monica received a B-grade from the American Lung Association recently, in large part because of its stance on smoking in multiunit housing. Today, smokers can light up in their apartments, but not in common areas, near open doorways or in parks.

City Council members have held back on making all apartments smokefree over fears that it would negatively impact the elderly and disabled or give landlords opportunities to force some tenants out.

It’s time to act, Schiller said.

“We made the bars smokefree, and people said, ‘Oh my god, how can you do that?’” Schiller said. “The same thing needs to happen in apartments.”

ashley@www.smdp.com

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