John Minchillo/AP/File
New York City firefighters work at the scene of a fire at public-housing high-rise early Sunday, July 6, 2014, in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

One million American households could be smoke-free under new ban

Public housing groups have pushed back on the policy due to misgivings about how such regulation could be enforced. 

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is moving forward on a proposal to ban smoking in all public housing nationwide on Thursday, a policy that could potentially make a million households smoke-free.

"The argument about secondhand smoke is over," HUD Secretary Julián Castro told The New York Times. "It's harmful, and we believe it's important that we have an environment that's healthy in public housing."

The proposal would mandate that the more than 3,100 public housing agencies across the country put the ban into effect within 18 months of a final ruling. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that nearly 1 in 5 deaths in the United States is linked to smoking, making it the leading cause of preventable death in the country. The agency estimates that a smoke-free rule in US public housing would save about $153 million a year in health care, fire-related losses, and building maintenance costs, according to a statement from HUD.  

Beginning in 2009, HUD has been campaigning for smoke-free public housing. Since then, a little less than a quarter of the 1.2 million individuals living in public housing live in places that have adopted a ban.

Smoking is nearly twice as pervasive for those at or below the poverty line in the US. The CDC found that 29 percent of individuals living in poverty smoke, versus 16 percent of people who are not in poverty.

Shola Olatoye, the chairwoman and chief executive of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), told the Times, “For us, the major issue is our ability to enforce something like this.” Ms. Olatoye added that she hoped the implementation and enforcement of any new policy would be largely resident-led, and would not involve law enforcement.

Olatoye referenced a 2012 residents’ survey conducted by the housing authority that found 14 percent of 1,209 respondents said they smoked, nearly a quarter said at least one member of their household was a smoker.

“There’s clearly a need for addressing this issue head-on,” she said. “The question is, how do we do it?”

Public housing groups have pushed back on the policy, due to misgivings about how a ban could be enforced. The public has 60 days to comment on the proposal.

“Everyone – no matter where they live – deserves a chance to grow up in a healthy, smoke-free home,” said US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy. "There is no safe level of secondhand smoke."

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