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The Imminent Death of Smoking in Public Housing

The federal government wants to ban smoking in public housing nationwide. It could save millions of dollars, but that doesn't allay some cities' concerns.

(Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
The time for smoke-free public housing is here, at least according to the Obama administration. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) proposed a ban in November on smoking cigarettes, cigars and pipes inside all homes under jurisdiction of a public housing authority. 

More than 600 agencies (out of roughly 3,300) already have some form of smoke-free policy, including Philadelphia, which last summer became the largest city to ban smoking in public housing.

If and when a rule is finalized, housing authorities would have up to 18 months to comply. But they say they need more time. 

“Public housing right now is besieged. We have a budget crisis on our hands, we’re only seeing 80 cents on the dollar of what we’re supposed to get [from the feds],” said Tim Kaiser, executive director of the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association. “And now the administration is proposing literally millions of hours of time during historically low funding."

The move, however, has been a long time coming.

The federal government started promoting the idea of smoke-free public housing in 2009, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report in 2014 that found a smoking ban in public housing (excluding subsidized housing) could save states almost $150 million a year. Most of the savings would come from reduced health costs related to secondhand smoke. But the savings wouldn't stop there.

“It would also save money because there would be less need for renovations,"  said Brian King, a deputy director in the CDC's Office of Smoking and Health. "When people smoke in their home, it creates damage that has to be fixed once they move out. Finally, the costs from fires in and around the homes would also drive down expenses."

While the proposed HUD rule advises authorities to use the enforcement standards already in place for grievance complaints, cities that already have some sort of smoke-free policy vary in their enforcement. Some have a three-strikes policy, while others give multiple warnings and fines before evicting people. In Fresno, Calif., which implemented a smoke-free policy in 2011, the homeless and mentally ill living in public supportive housing are exempt from the rule.

“Of course we don’t want our homeless population smoking," said Preston Prince, executive director of the Fresno Housing Authority. "We just don’t want eviction to be the hammer we hang over their heads about it."

So far, there have been no evictions in Fresno, which Prince credits to residents' cooperation and the city's help providing smoking cessation programs.

The Obama administration, however, hasn't said whether cities will have any flexibility to make exceptions like Fresno's under the proposed federal rule. If it were solely up to the CDC, they would take a hard-line approach because "research from the Surgeon General in 2006 found that these partial policies are just not effective," said the CDC's King.

But there's little, if any, research that shows whether such smoking bans actually influence people to stop smoking. 

"People have told me that the number of incidents of smokers within a unit have decreased," said Kaiser. "Whether or not that means they have quit smoking altogether, though, is another story."

Kaiser wants to be clear that the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association isn’t against smoke-free public housing in general; it's against a top-down mandate that's only directed to public housing and exempts other forms of subsidized housing. He also fears the new rule could leave cities with legal bills. 

“About 40 percent of residents in public housing are elderly or disabled. Are we really expected to tell a Korean war vet who has smoked all his life that he has to go at least 25 feet from his building to have a cigarette?” he said. “I can just see the lawsuits coming out of this.”

*This story has been updated.

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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