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Resolving MUH Smoking Complaints

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Resolving MUH Smoking Complaints

Spotlight on submission from Marin LLA & Smoke-Free Marin “Resolving Difficult MUH Smoking Complaints: Applying Esther Schiller’s Complaint Resolution Training”

Recently, California lost a major pioneer in the Smoke-Free Multi-Unit Housing movement: Esther Schiller, who developed systems and ordinances to protect residents of apartments and condos from drifting smoke. Esther was a pioneer in the world of smoke-free multi-unit housing, and she received the prestigious Carol Russell Award from the California Tobacco Control Program in 2005 in recognition of her work. This example (from Marin County) shows how one of many California counties adopted Esther Schiller’s trainings on how to protect nonsmokers from public health and fire hazards of smoking and vaping.

We share (further down) a progression of steps but it does not include a very effective method of working with complaints that was taught by Esther Schiller, who emphasized the importance of:

• Listening with one’s heart to the sometimes-lengthy stories of people suffering from unwanted smoke exposure in their homes.

• Maintaining compassion and patience no matter how many times a person calls, “feel” their stories and advocate for their rights to a smoke-free home.

It is so easy to just “roll eyes” when "that" member of the public who is suffering from secondhand smoke calls or emails us again and again. Yet Esther taught that if we treat that person’s involuntary smoke exposure with serious respect, an enforcement agency will take it seriously too. It takes compassionate determination to mobilize a system fraught with bureaucratic inertia.

Sometimes it is not just accomplishments that is a legacy, it is how we treat people honorably with respect, caring and kindness. That in itself is one of the mentoring gifts that Esther left for us all. Esther was an example of seeing this work from the perspective of being a public servant providing services instead of seeing it as just a job. For Esther, it was a mission. Esther never stopped until the drifting smoke issue was solved, whether it was for an individual, family, apartment complex or community. She was not about ego or impressing superiors. She was humble and grateful for all signs of progress. Esther showed by her example, if you live from your heart and not just your head, you resource a well of infinite energy, patience and endurance. Those living in multi-unit housing settings are the beneficiaries of this type of public health advocacy.

There is no way to measure how many lives are impacted by working towards high compliance rates with multi-unit housing ordinances. What we know for sure is that the effort of protecting residents from drifting tobacco and cannabis smoke and related fires are worthwhile. Youth groups throughout California have contributed to the passage of smoke-free multi-unit housing ordinances. In Marin County, the Youth Advisory Council (YAC) of the Smoke-Free Marin Coalition, moved stalled MUH campaigns forward by speaking up during the three minutes of “Open Time” at the beginning of council meetings. Their compelling presentations got the MUH ordinances scheduled for public hearings. When members of the cannabis industry pushed for exemptions for cannabis in the name of “medicine”, the YAC members to prevented unhealthy exemptions in every jurisdiction when they described the impact their neighbor's cannabis smoke and vape had on them and their younger sibilings. This resulted in the zero-exemption ordinances that protected 100% of residents. (Clarification: residents of multi-unit housing settings are permitted to use cannabis in non-flammable, non-combustible formats that do not force secondhand smoke or vaping aerosols on neighbors).

Throughout California, recent smoke-free multi-unit housing ordinances protect 100% of residents (in apartments and condos) from both tobacco and cannabis smoking and vaping with zero exemptions.

Videos such as the following helped win effective smoke-free ordinances (that do not exempt cannabis or vaping): Cautionary Smoke-Free Housing Tale: Costs of Inaction:

Elected Leaders Take Action on Smoke-Free Housing:

These ordinances have been cost-effective and self-enforcing in jurisdictions where implementation programs included education for property managers and Homeowners Associations of condo complexes. While local tobacco control programs cannot provide enforcement, they are able to help implement smoke-free MUH ordinances in multiple ways to ensure high compliance rates:

1) Posting ordinances on websites, such as

2) Providing education for property managers including training videos: Implementing Smoke-Free Apartment Ordinances:

Implementing Smoke-Free Condos;

3) Serving as First Responder for Complaints • Coalition website can accept complaints: 

LLA Director can send out a template warning letter, which resolves most complaints with minimal effort, when fines are included. (Contact us for example).

If the educational warning letter and or a follow up phone call to a property manager or HOA does not solve the problem, the complaint is referred to local enforcement, which in some cases would be code enforcement, or a building inspection department or law enforcement.

Good records must be kept in case the matter goes to court. Fire departments have been very powerful allies in helping to create awareness about the importance of creating high compliance with smoke-free ordinances.

Local public television stations are willing to run free Public Service Announcements such as these: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes:

Smoke and Dope-Free Air (Can be adapted by any county):

Fire Department PSA to support smoke-free MUH compliance:

Pediatrician’s PSA to support smoke-free MUH compliance:

Submitted by Elizabeth Emerson and Raven Twilling (Smoke-Free Marin Coalition and Youth Advisory Council). Raven can be reached at: Elizabeth can be reached at:

For more information, please contact Elizabeth Emerson, (415) 234-7434

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