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Tougher tobacco rules may spark housing disputes

A new tobacco law that takes effect this month may spark legal wrangles.

Nainen polttaa tupakkaa parvekkeella.
New regulations will make it easier for building associations and owners to ban smoking on balconies. Image: Yle

Finland's new Tobacco Act takes effect on August 15. Most of the changes are part of the EU's Tobacco Products Directive of 2014.

The new law forbids the use of any flavouring, such as menthol, in most tobacco products. It also bans smoking in cars with children under age 15 – although this will not be punishable. And from now on, smokers of electronic cigarettes will face all the same restrictions as those using other cigarettes.

New health warnings will also appear on tobacco packages, including sometimes-gruesome pictures of the health effects of smoking. By EU law, these image and text warnings must cover at least 65 percent of the front and back of packages.

Finland's Ministry of Social Affairs and Health says that the disturbing photos will have a strong effect on consumers. Older packages without photos cannot be sold after next May. Meanwhile Finns who cross the border into Russia to buy much-cheaper cigarettes will be required to stay at least one night there if they want to bring back a carton of smokes.

Controversial clause

The most controversial clause – and one which is not included in the EU directive – will likely be those making it easier for housing companies and associations to block smoking on balconies and other outdoor spaces. This part of the law takes effect at the beginning of next year.

One aspect that has aroused much debate is that incorporated residents' associations, through which residential apartment blocks in Finland tend to be owned, will be able to apply to their local councils for prohibitions of smoking on balconies and terraces, or even within flats if smoke can spread from one home to another through the building's structures. The current requirement of a proven health hazard will no longer be necessary.

Jenni Hupli, head lawyer at the Finnish Real Estate Federation, says that the law must be clarified.

"A ban cannot necessarily be sought for individual flats or balconies. There will have to be consideration of an overall situation," she notes.

"Completely idiotic"

A Helsinki resident who gave his name only as Jari lives in a building where there have been disputes over smoking.

"This is completely idiotic," he told Yle. "If smoke goes from one apartment to another, then there's something wrong with the construction. In that case you might just as well forbid people from drinking and cooking as well."

His smoking companion, Marko, agrees, saying: "There's too much of this nanny state mentality. You should be able to do what you like in your own home as long as you don't disturb others."

Anyone who has been a member of a housing association knows that major disputes can arise over seemingly small issues. Hupli says it will be interesting to see how the new legislation on balcony smoking plays out in the real world. She also hopes for more details from authorities about the change before it takes effect at the beginning of next year.

"When more precise directives come out, housing companies will have sufficient tools to handle this issue," she says.

Her organisation believes that a simple majority of homeowners in a building should be enough to apply for a smoking ban. At the end of the day, it is municipal officials who will have to decide whether to impose such bans on a case-by-case basis.

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