Guest Column: Rockford should ban smoking in residential places

By John Russell Ghrist

For me and anyone else in the city who is affected by ignorant smokers who blow their toxic fumes on those who do not want to breathe this garbage, the city council should act. I have resided in one half of a duplex that I own for 12 years. My life is a quiet one. I work on my free-lance newspaper articles and write scripts for music shows for two volunteer public radio programs. I don’t bother anyone.

About a month ago, a couple moved in next door. They seemed like nice people, but I knew right away that there would be trouble. They smoke, and I quickly learned that they have no intention of quitting. The walls that separate the units are like cardboard. I listen to music with headphones on and keep my TV volume down, while they blast what they listen to. I can hear a baby cry, a dog barking, TVs and radios, and loud conversations, especially one-sided ones on their telephone. Every time they open a door or a cabinet, they slam it shut. I can even hear them snoring on the other side of the wall, from the desk where I write.

This place is just an apartment with two units. These people must smoke 24 hours a day. The toxic stench is getting into my unit through the walls, furnace vents and outlets. It would probably cost too much to renovate the place to stop the smoke from getting into my unit. They rent here and own a house someplace else, they told me, and probably don’t want that smell in their place or the activity of their cosmetics business there. Occasionally, vehicles come here that advertise their products and have signs on their doors and windows. Discarded cosmetics boxes are set out for the trash each week.

They receive business mail at this address. Product vehicles are even worked on in their garage. Sometimes, I hear a machine operating, and there’s often a perfume smell that comes in with the smoke. I can see boxes and shelves in their garage. I am not a busybody, but can easily tell that there is clearly a business going on next door. Aren’t there laws against operating a store or a warehouse in a residential area?

I smell the odor of perfume from the numerous boxes of products that are delivered to their door. That smell comes through the walls, too. I am sure that this odor is getting into my clothes, books, records and other things. I have already delivered a couple of holiday gifts early because I did not want the smell of smoke on them. I have been here for a long time, and my life’s work is in my unit. It is getting all smoked up along with my lungs. The inside air here seems totally polluted. The smell in their place must be 100 percent cigarette stench that their baby is also breathing. If they don’t stop smoking for that young child, they will not cease for me either. I am awakened every morning between 4 and 5 with burning eyes and a choking cough. A new day of smoking has begun, which is intensified when my furnace comes on.

When they first moved in, the man was smoking. I told them that would be a problem. He tried to hide his cigarette behind his back, but I smelled it right away. A few days later, I met the lady out in the driveway and told her that their smoking was bothering me. Her reply was, “That’s part of sharing a building, I’m not going to quit.” I then replied that I was going to call the health department, and her reply was, “You do that!” Since then, I have noticed that a cosmetics store has opened nearby in a strip mall. I do not know the connection between the problems next door to me and that store.

If I am out for a short time, the stench hits me right in the face when I return. The smoke burns my eyes and makes my chest hurt … I have been coughing, my voice is changing, and there is lots of phlegm in my throat now. I taste dirt in my mouth all day. To deal with the problem, I have two fans going, an air purifier and the window open. The utility bills are going up, since the furnace runs constantly, and the heated air needed to keep this place warm in the winter goes right out the window. These people are causing me this wasteful expense. At night, I now have to shut the window because it is just too cold outside. I wear a coat around in my unit and sleep wrapped in a robe and a bunch of blankets.

No one should have to live this way. When it was warmer, they would cook outside, the barbecue smoke would go right into my back window, and they couldn’t care less.

Health educators from the State Department of Health, the Winnebago County Health Department, the American Cancer Society, and the Respiratory Association have sent me numerous brochures about the dangers of breathing secondhand smoke. Last year, 65,000 people died from breathing it. It is the No. 1 preventable act that people can do for better health. It causes asthma in children Third-hand smoke lowers property value because it gets into carpets, drapes and walls. It costs more to clean it when smokers move, and it really never goes away. Air purifiers only remove the smell and not the toxins. Nearly 100 cancer-causing chemicals are in cigarette smoke. When I leave, I still smell it on my clothes.

The brochures also outlined guidelines where affected tenants can sue to recover moving expenses. When I have finally figured out that there is no way to win, I’ll give up and move before my health is severely compromised. It really stinks here.

I have spoken with the condo association president and sent letters to the other residents. The president said that there was nothing he could do. He was also sent some of the above-mentioned brochures by the respiratory people. There was no reaction from the other tenants. No one seems to care about this health hazard.

One brochure says that there are 18 percent fewer smokers now because the message has gotten through to some that smoking is dangerous and costly. I have not seen this, and it makes the smokers left more of a nuisance with their selfishness and the way they litter, too.

I have also discussed this problem with Rockford Ald. Tom McNamara, who urged me to stay after the condo association. He stated that it was much easier to convince condo owners to change their bylaws than convince 16 city council members to act. Some of the tenants here are renters, and the person who owns many of the adjoining units is also a smoker. The health educators say there is nothing they can really do because the anti-smoking regulations only pertain to public and business places. It is a bit flimsy, but a business appears to be operating in the next unit where the smokers are. They want me to be the poster boy for fighting this. I am just one person who is fed up with breathing this garbage. I have a family, too, lifelong goals, I play ball, have written several history books, etc. I don’t want to die from lung cancer and shorten my life because of someone else’s ignorance.

The media does not seem interested in this, but it is a real health concern, and there is good evidence about the dangers of smoking and those affected by it. The city council and state should amend their ordinances about smoking. There are no constitutional rights for smokers. If what they choose to do bothers other people, they should be made to stop it. No warnings on cigarette packages or high prices are going to stop people from smoking. Laws are needed to protect nonsmokers.

CVS drug stores no longer sell cigarettes but do sell anti-smoking aids. There is other help available to smokers wanting to quit. The people next door don’t care about the conditions that they have made me live under. Someone could show them the burned-out charcoal-lined lungs of a cadaver who was a lifelong smoker, and it would not matter to them.

Sometimes the smoke gets so bad that I have to stay the night elsewhere. People say that I should just move and let these arrogant people have their way. But why should I have to move? I’m retired and would have to pay lots more to live somewhere else. I’ve been here 12 years, and they have been here for a little over a month. All of my resource materials are here. I just wonder if there are others like me who are totally fed up with smelling stale cigarette smoke from disgusting neighbors or other tenants and do not know what to do about this. Or they feel trapped and are stuck breathing this costly, daily dose of toxic garbage blowing in their faces 24 hours a day? Frankly, I don’t know why anyone would want to stick burning garbage in their mouths, pollute their lungs, or endanger the lives of others. I don’t know the science of addiction that has lined the pockets of tobacco companies for all these years. I don’t understand the “satisfaction” that a person receives from charging nearly $100 for a carton of cigarettes at a gas station and seeming their money “go up in smoke.” This is apparently a city of smokers, and nothing is going to be done until we’re all dead of lung cancer or heart disease. I’ll then move before that happens to me. The sad thing then is that dead or alive, the smokers win.

John Russell Ghrist is a Rockford resident.

From the Dec. 17-23, 2014, issue

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