All US public housing to be smoke-free, HUD announces

The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a smoking ban in public housing on Wednesday, igniting a variety of responses.

Nati Harnik/AP
Bellevue City Councilman Don Preister holds up a newspaper clipping at a city council meeting on Sept. 12, 2016 showing the aftermath of a fire in a city apartment complex which was caused by cigarettes. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has announced plans to ban smoking in public housing facilities.

As national smoking rates continue to decline, and state and local governments experiment with new policies to curb cigarette use, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) stepped up its own efforts against tobacco on Wednesday, announcing plans to ban smoking in public housing.

The new rule, which will take effect in fall 2018, follows the department's 2009 move to encourage Public Housing Agencies to adopt smoke-free policies. According to the HUD, up to 228,000 public housing units already have smoke-free policies, and the new rule will expand the coverage to 940,000 public housing units.

"Every child deserves to grow up in a safe, healthy home free from harmful second-hand cigarette smoke," HUD Secretary Julian Castro said in a statement. "HUD's smoke-free rule is a reflection of our commitment to using housing as a platform to create healthy communities. By working collaboratively with public housing agencies, HUD's rule will create healthier homes for all of our families and prevent devastating and costly smoking-related fires."

Some have criticized the move as overreaching, or ineffective. But the ban follows a nationwide trend of states and cities not just seeking to curb smoking rates, but also gradually expanding the regulations to new products, like e-cigarettes. California voters approved an initiative in November to raise tobacco taxes by $2 per pack, for example, while CVS stopped selling tobacco products in 2014.

The question that remains, however, is whether bans and taxes will actually help people stop smoking – or, regardless of their effectiveness, whether the public housing rule is fair. 

"Sometimes there is too much overreach," Kelli Green, a public housing resident in Harrisburg, Pa., told PennLive. "I know it's public housing. But you're taking away people's dignity. I think we need to live and let live."

The new rule will ban lit tobacco products – cigarettes, cigars, or pipes – in all living units, indoor common areas, administrative offices, and outdoor areas within 25 feet of housing and administrative buildings. According to the HUD, this prohibition will save the agencies $153 million every year, including money that would have been spent repairing preventable fire-related damage, and secondhand smoke-related health-care costs.

Up to 100,000 fires a year nationwide are estimated to be caused by smoking, according to the HUD. Meanwhile, tobacco use remains the largest preventable cause of death and disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It's a good thing for the kids," public housing resident Shawn Kelly told PennLive. "Why do your kids have to suffer because of something you want to do? They shouldn't have to go to school with their clothes smelling like smoke. I do agree on that."

But Mr. Kelly doesn’t support the smoking ban within 25 feet of the building. It's dangerous to be forced to smoke away from the porch because "you could catch a bullet," he said.

Enforcing the rule might also be a problem. The HUD said violation of the smoking prohibition could be viewed as a lease violation, leaving some to worry that it might be used to force evictions.

Some also worry that inspections in enforcing the rule may harm the already sensitive cop-community relationship.

"I'm concerned about reversing all the progress that we have made in this city, and the healing that we have been able to do ... between police and NYPD," Public Advocate Letitia James told the New York Daily News. "This would really send us back if we engage in aggressive enforcement."

For residents in many cities, however, the smoking ban may be nothing new. 

"People are used to it now," Seattle Housing Authority spokeswoman Kerry Coughlin told the Associated Press. The city banned smoking in public housing in 2012. "So many places don't allow smoking."

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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