Wrangell Sentinel -

By Dan Rudy 

Senior apartments go smoke-free, following trend


Dan Rudy/ Wrangell Sentinel

A sign outside the Kadin Building on Front Street reminds passersby not to smoke or use other tobacco products on the premises. Home to several state agency offices and now a credit union, in November the building's owners formally adopted a policy barring occupants from using the substance.

Last month Wrangell's Senior Apartments formally went smoke-free, asking its residents to instead head outdoors if they feel the need to have a cigarette.

"It was mostly for the health and well-being of our tenants," explained Gail Rilatos, manager of the facility for the past four years.

The decision was made by the apartment complex's five-member governing board, which sought input on a new policy from Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. SEARHC facilitates an Alaska Tobacco Prevention and Control Program grant, which is paid for using funds from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and a portion of state cigarette tax revenues and tobacco company settlements. At the community level, the program provides technical assistance and tobacco-related health education for various organizations and businesses.

SEARHC educator Tammi Meissner said she had been invited by then-board member Ty Esposito, formerly Wrangell's Public Health Nurse.

"She was a big pusher of it," said Meissner. After Esposito's departure early on in the spring, board member Mike Ottesen Sr. kept the ball rolling on the idea. Meissner's role was technical, providing sample policies and answering questions about implementation. It is up to the individual establishment whether to ban smoke-specific tobacco usage, or to include smokeless chews and electronic vaporizer cigarettes as well.

"It's really up to the business that wants to do it," she said.

Due to the apartments' shared ventilation and common access, the board decided to stick with keeping units smoke-free. If a resident wants to continue smoking, the new policy would require them to do so at least 25 feet away from the building. The policy was adopted over the summer, and put into place on August 1.

On day one of the new policy, Senior Apartments resident Susie Hay decided it was a good time to quit.

"I've been smoking since I was five years old," Hay said. Now 74, she has given up tobacco on multiple occasions over the years, six years at the longest stretch. For her, smoking had been the cool thing to do as a teenager, and was tied to socializing during her adult years which made the habit difficult to let go. Hay was lately looking for reasons to quit, and having to start smoking outdoors seemed to be just the ticket.

"I just couldn't relate to that," she said. "So I just decided it was time to quit. And it wasn't hard."

All but one of the apartments' 23 units are occupied, and of its residents Rilatos said only a handful of residents would be affected as smokers. She said beyond the environmental health benefits, the new restriction would help cut down on maintenance costs as well. Years of cigarette residue takes its toll on the walls, furniture and carpeting, and in between residents smoked-in apartments need to be repainted, the carpet cleaned and wiped down.

It was those kinds of considerations which prompted bar owner Reme Privett to take away the ash trays. Rayme's Bar began the trend among local taverns, starting off the new year in 2014 with a ban on smoking inside.

"With me I kind of got tired of it," he said. A lot of cleaning had to go into keeping the establishment presentable, and between the periodic repainting and cost of cleaning chemicals, Privett decided it was no longer worth doing.

For the most part, he said patrons have been accepting of the change. Privett explained he has tried to be accommodating to his smoking customers, providing an overhang outside of each exit to shelter them from rainfall. He has been pleased with the decision so far, and says he has no regrets.

"I would never, ever go back to a smoking bar," he said.

The Totem Bar and

Elks Lodge became smoke-free as well shortly after Rayme's had, leaving the Marine

Bar & Pizza the only place left in town where patrons can light up. Other businesses and

workplaces have likewise gone smoke-free, such as outfitter Alaska Vistas, and the

Kadin Building last November. Meissner pointed out

Wrangell Senior Apartments' adoption of a policy makes it the first multiunit housing on the island to make the ban official.

In September last year Wrangell Cooperative Association eliminated tobacco use from its facilities and work vehicles as well. In an adoptive resolution, the WCA

Council cited the health risks connected to first- and

secondhand smoke exposure as a reason, considering that Alaska Natives also have the highest rate of tobacco use of any demographic in the state. The state Department of Health and Human Services estimates one in three adult Natives smoke in the state, compared to one in five non-Native Alaskans.

Meissner explained adopting a smoke-free environment

benefits non-smokers,

particularly vulnerable groups like elders, youth and those with sensitivities. In the long term, she said the overarching goal of her program and coalitions like Partnership for a Tobacco-Free Southeast is to change cultural perceptions about smoking.

"Eventually we'd like to see ordinances in every town, in order to protect those that are vulnerable," Meissner said. "Our goal is to have communities be able to breathe clean indoor air."

Currently Wrangell has no such ordinance in place. While people are not allowed to smoke inside city facilities or vehicles, they can do so immediately outside, near windows and doorways. An ordinance which would have formally addressed that was put to a popular vote in 2008, but was rejected by a 2-to-1 margin.

Though the measure failed then, Meissner said the effort had helped raise awareness, and has been followed by a general trend of businesses and multifamily residences going

smoke-free on their own. In turn, and in time, these changes may yet translate into fewer residents using tobacco. Already, efforts across the state have reduced the number of smokers, which since 1996 has proportionally fallen by 25 percent.

While the SEARHC

program no longer focuses on individual interventions for stopping tobacco use, it

does recommend resources for those desiring to quit. One such method is the state's Tobacco Quit Line, at 1-800-QUIT-NOW. An accompanying website at http://www.alaskaquitline.com has a number of facts, graphs and resources for those with an interest, including a cost calculator.

Hay said she would be happy to talk with people interested in quitting smoking, should they need advice on how to start.

"I want to encourage everyone to quit," she said.


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