The continued high rate of infant mortality, particularly among African-American families, is causing increased sadness and heartache within our community.
The Milwaukee Health Department reports that the overall infant mortality rate was 10.2 infant deaths per 1,000 live births in 2011. Most shockingly, the rate for African-Americans was nearly three times higher than among white infants: 14.5 deaths per 1,000 live births to 5.0.
Smoking helps contribute to this continuing tragic scenario. Researchers more and more are focusing on unhealthy environments created by smoking, poverty and racism as principal causes for high rates of infant mortality. The CDC lists smoking as one of seven risk factors in sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). If the mother herself smokes – particularly during pregnancy – studies show it could cause premature births and increased incidences of SIDS. Second-hand smoke has much the same affect.
It’s a fact that smoking is about twice as prevalent among African-Americans as among whites. Similarly, low-income Americans smoke at twice the rate as do higher income individuals. These families are more likely to live in apartments, housing projects and other multi-unit housing, crammed together in small apartments where a single smoker can infect others. Even those in adjoining apartments can be affected as smoke creeps through cracks at doors, ductwork and other entry points.
There’s one simple step that could help reduce high rates of infant deaths: prohibit smoking in multi-unit housing structures.
Instead of passing laws (which might be difficult at present), let’s urge that landlords, rental agencies and others act voluntarily to make their buildings smoke-free.
For landlords, it’s win-win! Chances are that going smoke-less will enhance the landlord’s profitability in a number of ways. There’ll be reduced turnover costs, as one study shows the costs associated with cleaning a smoker’s apartment is nearly two-and-one-half times as high as that of a nonsmoker. Fire insurance rates, too, should decrease, since careless smoking is one of the key causes of home and apartment fires. Such smoke-related fires cause an average $20,000 in damage.
Landlords may also benefit in attracting new tenants since studies show some 72% of residents prefer nonsmoking buildings. The experience of Wisconsin’s two-year-old public smoke-free law may be instructive; with rare exceptions, restaurants and taverns experienced no significant loss of business, and many gained new customers from among the large numbers of nonsmokers.
There are tools available to landlords to assist them in implementing a smoke-free policy. The American Lung Association offers, for instance, an online curriculum on how to do it. In the Milwaukee area, landlords and others may contact groups like the City of Milwaukee Tobacco Free Alliance, the Wisconsin Hispanic/Latino Prevention Network, the Wisconsin African-American Tobacco Free Network, Tobacco-Free Suburban & Ozaukee County and the Wisconsin Tobacco Prevention and Poverty Network.
Surveys show a surprising number of smokers favor such tobacco-free environments, since most smokers would like to ditch the habit themselves. Many smokers, we believe, realize that they are doing more than endangering their own health; they are endangering others as well, particularly children. Such a rule may help motivate these smokers to stop, given the added inconvenience of having to run outside for a smoke.
It’s time to act on this commonsense idea of creating a smoke-free housing unit. Not only will it assist in the campaign to reduce infant mortality in the city, but it will make for a healthier life for all the city’s residents.
(By Robert Cherry, coordinator, Milwaukee Tobacco Free Alliance, and prevention services manager, Community Advocates, Inc., a nonprofit advocacy agency based in Milwaukee.)