A Long-time Advocate Pushes for Smoke-Free Housing in Queens

Phil Konigsberg was diagnosed with polio on Columbus Day in 1953, when he was eight years old. His doctor told him that he would spend his life in a wheelchair. Years later, in his 40s, Konigsberg tracked down the doctor and walked right into his office – living proof of the incorrect prognosis.

“I have a tendency to be nasty but I wasn’t,” Konigsberg said with a laugh. “I just wanted him to know that I was determined to show him that he was wrong.”

That same sense of purpose shows in Konigsberg’s dedication to the cause of smoke-free living in New York City. For decades, he has been at the center of efforts to make the city smoke free.

In recent months, he has focused on his home borough of Queens by encouraging local community boards to pass resolutions calling for legislation that would ban smoking in multi-family residences. Though not legally binding, the resolutions, Konigsberg says, will send a message to City Hall that smoke-free housing legislation should be considered.

Konigsberg’s battle against smoking goes back to polio. The disease left him with diminished lung capacity, making the act of breathing an inevitable focus of his life. He needs oxygen and a respirator to sleep. When Konigsberg and his wife, Jennifer, go out, it’s not dinner and a movie, but a movie and a dinner because Konigsberg has difficulty breathing after a large meal and needs to get to his oxygen and respirator.

“I don’t think about every breath but I have to think about breathing,” he said.

As an anti-smoking crusader since his childhood, Konigsberg, now 64, still remembers the time when his mother, a smoker, asked him to buy her a package of cigarettes. He said he told her, “I’ll have no part of this.”

One afternoon years later, when dating Jennifer, Konigsberg found a cigarette in the toilet of her apartment. He issued an ultimatum: quit smoking or the relationship would be finished.

“Even when I smoked outdoors,  he made it very clear he was against it,” his wife said. “And I quit.”

Thirty-four years of marriage later, Jennifer Konigsberg has become a strong ally in her husband’s anti-smoking advocacy, joining him at protests. She recalled the first protest of her life—alongside her husband at an anti-smoking rally at Madison Square Garden.

“I told him, ‘if I get arrested for this…’” she said, laughing.

Now, Phil Konigsberg says, his wife is so forcefully against smoking that if someone brings it up at dinner, she quickly redirects the conversation. Konigsberg says he himself won’t even bring up the topic.

Jennifer Koningsberg saw it in a slightly different way. “He’s such a strong advocate that when he gets started it’s like ‘OK, OK already let’s change the subject!’”

Konigsberg met his wife after graduating from St. Johns University in Queens, where he was a manager of the basketball team and later covered sports news for the now-defunct Long Island Press before working at ABC Sports as “assistant to the assistant to the producer.” He said he would have continued working in sports journalism but no full-time jobs opened up, so he took a job in wealth management for an insurance company in Manhattan. There, Konigsberg would meet like-minded individuals involved in anti-tobacco advocacy.

Among them was Joe Cherner, a Wall Street trader who made a name for himself in New York City as a staunch advocate for smoke-free living. His efforts contributed to the citywide banning of the cigarette vending machine, the end of the subway tobacco ad and the implementation of mandatory non-smoking sections in workplaces and restaurants.

Konigsberg first learned about Cherner on the subway when an advertisement for an anti-smoking poster contest that Cherner was coordinating stared down at him. One poster pictured a cigarette box with “Pack of Lies” taking the place of the Marlboro logo. At the bottom of the ad was contact information for Cherner, which Konigsberg scribbled down.

They met in 1988 and worked together for the next decade. One memorable moment in their partnership involved a group of about 20 smoke-free advocates gathering at Madison Square Garden to protest the Virginia Slims cigarette brand sponsoring a women’s tennis tournament hosted there. Cherner got the group tickets to go inside where they handed out protest flyers before being thrown out of the stadium.

“I rode on the coattails of Joe Cherner,” said Konigsberg. “ I didn’t worship him, but everything came back to Joe.”

Over the years, he and Cherner attended public hearings in the city and Konigsberg worked closely with SmokeFree Education Service, the organization Cherner presided over that organized informational events about smoke-free advocacy.

“I knew I could count on him for whatever I asked him to do,” Cherner said in a phone interview. “He was very dedicated. He attended all the protests and was very active.”

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed the Smoke Free Air Act of 2002, which ensured that public places including bars, nightclubs and restaurants and all places of employment in New York City would be smoke free. Because of that success, SmokeFree Education Service ceased to exist in 2004. Cherner and his family had also moved from his apartment in Battery Park after the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, so he and Konigsberg lost touch.

After Cherner left, Konigsberg said life was different. “I was a loner,” he said.

But in the mid-2000s, Konigsberg got involved with other groups, the NYC Coalition for a Smoke-Free City and Americans for Non-Smokers Rights. When he heard about smoke-free housing in other parts of the country, he decided that was something New York should have. After a community board in Staten Island passed a resolution for smoke free housing, Konigsberg was convinced that Queens would be next. He drafted his own resolution and sent them out to the 14 community boards in Queens.

By June of 2014, Konigsberg began traveling to community boards to promote the resolution. He teamed up with Eileen Miller, a nurse and Bayside Hills board member.

Miller said she was moved by by Konigsberg’s assertiveness. Living in a single-family home with non-smokers, she had never thought much about smoke-free housing. “After I got together with Phil, I really started to think,” she said.

Their strategy has been to attend the community board meetings before the meeting starts and work the crowd and members to convince at least one board member to raise his or her hand to have a discussion about the resolution.

By early October of this year, those efforts appeared to have paid off: 10 of the 14   Queens community boards had approved some kind of measure promoting smoke-free housing.

“I really couldn’t do it without her,” Kongsberg said of Miller. “Sometimes I butt heads with people and say, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong.’ Eileen takes control and is very passionate. We make a great team.”

That teamwork was evident at an Oct. 14 general board meeting of Community Board 6 in Kew Gardens, which was set to vote on the resolution. Miller sat patiently in the back of the community room looking at the clock. “I told him to get here by 7,” she said. “It’s 7.”

She asked the chairman of the board for permission to lay 2 x 4-inch yellow cards on the board members’ tables. The cards were printed with a short note about smoke-free housing:   “I have seen the devastation that lung ailments can do. The heartache and sadness that it causes. If refraining from smoking will help them survive, I believe we need to try.”

At 7:05 p.m., Konigsberg walked in and quickly greeted Eileen and Joel Bhuiyan, the Queens community engagement coordinator for the coalition, before making his way to the front of the room to remind board members about the vote.

District Manager Frank Gulluscio was quick to scold Konigsberg.

“It’s against the law,” he said. “It’s electioneering.”

Hearing the scuffle in the front, Miller said, “See, they’re sick of us. I promised I’d keep an eye on him.”

Konigsberg moved to the back of the room with Miller and Bhuiyan. They agreed that Gulluscio was outside his authority, as the meeting had not been called to order. Konigsberg decided to approach board members as they entered instead of approaching the podium.

“We don’t want to get him thrown out,” Miller said. She told Konigsberg to sit down because board members had probably made up their minds.

When the vote was brought up on the agenda, the board decided that they could not take the vote because of a lack of quorum. Chairman Joseph Hennessy apologized to Konigsberg, who walked up to speak during the public hearing.

Konigsberg speaks to the board as some members vacate their seats before the meeting is adjourned.
Konigsberg speaks to the board as some members vacate their seats before the meeting is adjourned.

“We’re asking for the right to breathe,” Konigsberg said, as board members got up and left the room, the meeting not yet adjourned. “All that I’m saying is that people who live in apartment buildings should have the same right. I’ll be back next month.”

The meeting adjourned and Konigsberg approached Gulluscio about his allegations of electioneering earlier. “I’m off the clock,” Gulluscio said, hurriedly exiting the room.

Konigsberg is not backing down. He is working on coordinating advocates to present to community boards in Brooklyn and the Bronx. He insists that consensus within and across the boroughs is essential to making the resolution for smoke-free housing activate City Hall to adopt legislation.

“I don’t do things for only myself,” he said. “I do things for the common good.”