Pictured is mother and Los Angeles apartment tenant, Levystein Lockett with her two sons. “I am not afraid to speak up. These are my children, it’s up to me to advocate for them. If I don’t, who will,” said Lockett. (Amanda Scurlock/ LA Sentinel)

“Seventy-Two percent of African Americans are exposed to secondhand smoke, compared to 50 percent of Caucasian Americans, and 45 percent of Mexican Americans,” said the Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights non-profit organization.

Exposure to secondhand smoke (SHS) can happen in the workplace, restaurants, bars, parks, and in the home. In fact, families and individuals living in multi-unit housing are more likely to be exposed to SHS from neighboring units, balconies, and outdoor areas.

According to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Center for Health and Policy Research, more than one in three nonsmokers who live in rental housing are exposed to SHS, effecting both children and adults.

In children, secondhand smoke can cause ear infections, more frequent and severe asthma attacks, respiratory symptoms (coughing, sneezing, and shortness of breath), and put children at risk for sudden infant death syndrome. In adults who have never smoked, SHS can cause heart disease, lung cancer, and strokes.

Last week, the Los Angeles Sentinel had a chance to speak with UCLA-Smokefree Air for Everyone (UCLA-S.A.F.E) project manager Marlene Gomez, regarding their Smokefree Apartment Los Angeles (SALA) initiative.

“We have one of the highest rental populations with a serious lack of affordable housing,” said Gomez. “Add to this that 80 percent of the available apartments have no secondhand smoke protections along with heavy targeted tobacco marketing to existing smokers, and you have the perfect mix for a public health issue that has been perpetuating in these communities.”

As part of their project, UCLA Center for Health and Policy Research is partnering with community-based organizations to take steps toward expanding smokefree apartment living in the city of Los Angeles. The project will reduce secondhand smoke exposure to tenants living in low-income communities.

According to Gomez, South L.A. apartments, where Blacks and Latinos live (particularly senior citizens and children), receive the hardest hit of drifting secondhand smoke.

Levystein Lockett is a SALA initiative assisted apartment tenant who lives across the hall from heavy cigarette and marijuana smokers in a non-smoking building with her two sons. Although Lockett confronted her neighbor’s multiple times, they refused to quit, and the management company is passive. Due to her neighbor’s excessive smoking, Lockett’s children are now showing symptoms of secondhand smoke.

“My oldest son Joshua has asthma,” said Lockett. “My neighbors, who are fairly close to me, smoke cigarettes and marijuana. So both of my boys have to hold their breath whenever they are in the hallway. Joshua has asthma attacks pretty frequently because of this. Whenever my neighbors smoke marijuana and cigarettes, the smoke comes under the cracks of our apartment door. My youngest son Isiah, who never had asthma, is now displaying signs because of this.”

Lockett goes on to say apartment owners should be the ones to enforce the no smoking policies, not the tenants.

“I am not afraid to speak up,” said Lockett. “These are my children, it’s up to me to advocate for them. If I don’t, who will?”

Lockett encourages families to heavily research and ask questions prior to moving into an apartment building.

“Asking questions helps to ensure policies, rules and regulations are adhered to. If smoking becomes an issue, do not wait and hope the problem solves itself,” said Lockett. “Make a formal complaint.”

“If your complaint is not taken seriously, continue speaking up and advocating for your family.”

She goes on to encourage families to seek legal counsel and relocate if necessary.

“It’s ok to have to move and find another place to live,” she said. “It does not mean you lost the battle. It just means you value you and your family’s health more. Do not continue to stay because while you are staying, your family’s health continues to be affected.”

Although the issue of fighting for a smokefree environment is tedious, the Lockett family is hopeful in their search of finding a new smokefree place to call home. Lockett and her two sons are thankful for all the help they received from SALA and the representatives from UCLA S.A.F.E.

“We are passionate about this issue because our project is about using data to ultimately effect change in the community,” said UCLA S.A.F.E. “Our research showed a huge disparity among African Americans and [Latino Americans] renters in South L.A. We wanted to take those findings and in turn, create tools to educate and empower these communities to be vehicles of change.”

UCLA-S.A.F.E. is funded by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). For more information on the project, contact (866) 252-3383, email [email protected], or visit www.smokefreeaptsla.org.