Building Momentum to Reduce Tobacco-Related Health Disparities in the South Bronx, New York


New York City has made considerable progress toward reducing tobacco use, and recent trends show a continued decline in prevalence. However, such positive trends mask the substantial burden of tobacco related death and disease that continues to persist among low-income, underserved racial/ethnic minority populations. The South Bronx, an area of the New York City borough of the Bronx which includes the neighborhoods of University Heights, Tremont, Highbridge, Morrisania, Sound View, Hunts Point and Castle Hill, has struggled for decades with some of the most pressing social and economic inequities that disproportionately affect urban, low-income communities of color: high unemployment, poor public health, and substandard housing conditions.

The Challenge

Facing considerable barriers to improving the health outcomes of its residents, the South Bronx has been rated one of the nation’s unhealthiest and most poverty stricken areas. In its annual County Health Rankings, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that the Bronx ranked last out of 62 counties in New York State in health outcomes.

The South Bronx is also significantly impacted by tobacco use and secondhand smoke exposure. Recent data from the 2010 New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Community Health Survey demonstrates that the South Bronx has one of the highest smoking rates in the city. With a tobacco use rate of 19%, compared to the overall New York City smoking rate of 14%, the South Bronx is suffering from disproportionately high exposure to secondhand smoke, and high rates of disease and illness related to tobacco. As a result, the South Bronx community has one of the highest pediatric asthma rates in the country (17%), with asthma-related deaths being approximately three times higher than the national average in some parts of the Bronx.

With the goal of creating a healthier Bronx, the American Lung Association in New York teamed up with key housing corporations, community-based organizations and community leaders to form the South Bronx Smokefree Housing Project. This collaborative is working to promote the many benefits of voluntary smokefree policies among Bronx low-income housing facilities. Such smokefree policies will go a long way in improving the health of South Bronx community members, making the healthy choice an easier one for people where they live, work and play.

Working Towards a Solution to Reduce Tobacco-Related Health Disparities in the South Bronx

Smokefree housing is quickly emerging as a “best practice” among housing providers for providing safe and healthy housing in New York City. In 2011, the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation (SOBRO) implemented a voluntary smokefree housing policy at their Gateway Apartments, a 23-unit mixed-income residence located along the Major Deegan Expressway in the South Bronx. According to SOBRO, the transition was made fairly easy because residents agreed that the policy would have a positive impact.

As a natural extension of SOBRO’s tobacco prevention activities, support from the American Lung Association in New York’s South Bronx Smokefree Housing Project has allowed SOBRO to continue their activities in smokefree housing by providing them with the necessary resources to convert additional housing development units. Specifically, SOBRO has implemented non-smoking policies in two special needs housing facilities it manages in the South Bronx with a total of 154 units being converted and over 200 residents being protected from secondhand smoke exposure. By participating in this initiative, SOBRO has once again paved the way for other special needs housing developments in the South Bronx and New York City to implement similar policies.

As the property manager for over 600 units of housing and an affordable housing developer, SOBRO will continue to work with the American Lung Association in New York and other Bronx partners on converting all managed properties to become smokefree, adding additional buildings to their smokefree housing development portfolio in the upcoming year.

In addition, We Stay/Nos Quedamos, a South Bronx community based organization dedicated to promoting healthy and sustainable growth for Bronx communities has quickly become a leader in providing smokefree living environments for South Bronx residents.  Since its’ inception in 1993, over 15 buildings in the Nos Quedamos portfolio were developed with the environment and sustainability in mind, particularly with respect to indoor air quality. As a result, Nos Quedamos’ entire housing stock was planned as smokefree buildings in order to begin to address the high rates of asthma in their community. However, Nos Quedamos has experienced executive and board transitions that have stunted tenant-organizing success to ensure that these policies remain in place.

The American Lung Association in New York’s South Bronx Smokefree Housing Project has provided Nos Quedamos with the support needed to help build tenant organizing efforts and restructure their policies and systems efforts to remain smokefree. Nos Quedamos’s revamped smokefree building policy covers 1,500 housing units and protecting over 3,000 people in their mixed-income communities in the Melrose area of the Bronx. Their new policy will help to ensure that all who reside in their communities are protected from the dangers of secondhand smoke.

Charged with the monumental task of protecting and promoting the well-being of Bronx residents, the South Bronx has made great strides towards becoming a smokefree community. We plan to build on this success and continue to work within the Bronx to help further educate the community on the need for reducing exposure to secondhand smoke and move smokefree housing towards becoming the norm.