Assessing the Use of the Term ‘Grandfathering’ in Smoke-Free Housing

There are many words and phrases in the English language that we use regularly without awareness of their roots. At first glance, a word or phrase may seem harmless, however, a second look sometimes unveils a racist, damaging, or offensive history. In the realm of smoke-free housing, one such term is the word ‘grandfathering’.

Live Smoke Free and many other public health advocates and housing providers have used the word ‘grandfathering’ for decades to refer to residents who are exempted from a smoke-free policy and thus allowed to continue smoking in their unit after a smoke-free policy is implemented. These exemptions are harmful because they allow the continued exposure of vulnerable communities to secondhand smoke. ‘Grandfathering’ can be temporary or permanent and is most prevalent in common interest communities. It wasn’t until recently that one of our partners brought the word’s problematic history to our attention.

Here’s a more detailed explanation from Nancy Riley on

The term ‘grandfathering’ “arises from the term grandfather clause, and the reason to leave it in the past is right in the Merriam-Webster definition:

In the late nineteenth century, a group of U.S. Southern states passed legislation and constitutional amendments that made it harder, if not impossible, for African-Americans to vote. They introduced new requirements for literacy tests, poll taxes, and residency/property ownership restrictions in order to register to vote. States would exempt citizens from these new requirements if their ancestors (grandfathers) had voting rights before the Civil War. The motivation and outcome was to keep poor and illiterate former slaves and their descendants from voting, while allowing poor and illiterate whites to vote.”

Our Commitment
Live Smoke Free believes that everyone deserves a smoke-free home, regardless of their race, religion, sex, age, physical or mental ability, or socio-economic status. This includes a commitment to fighting institutional racism in our communities. The plan described below represents a small step towards this goal.

Live Smoke Free will work towards:

  • Eliminating the use of the term ‘grandfathering’ in our materials and vernacular
  • Promoting the use of the word ‘exemption’ in place of the word ‘grandfathering’
  • Encouraging housing providers to eliminate the practice of ‘grandfathering’ in smoke-free housing policies