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Philadelphia Becomes Largest City to Ban Smoking in Public Housing

Philadelphia, with 80,000 low-income tenants, is the largest city in the country to enact such a prohibition.

By Madeline R. Conway

The Philadelphia Housing Authority's Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to ban smoking in all of its units.

Housing officials said that Philadelphia, with 80,000 low-income tenants, is the largest city in the country to enact such a prohibition. The new rules are to take effect Aug. 5.

According to a poll released by the PHA, 35 percent of respondents smoked or lived with a smoker and 55 percent supported living in smoke-free housing.

Herbert Wetzel, the board's vice chairman, said that PHA officials and public-housing residents worked for months to arrive at "a fair and equitable policy to move forward with." There was no debate before the vote.

Under the policy, smoking will be prohibited both inside homes and on public-housing property -- except in designated outdoor areas.

Current or future tenants caught smoking in existing housing will be asked to attend counseling sessions, the new regulations state, but those residents will not face eviction. Those smoking in buildings that open after the ban goes into effect risk losing their leases upon violating the rules a fourth time.

Philadelphia's move follows a national trend. Public-housing agencies in other major metropolitan areas, including Houston, Boston and Detroit, have also gone smoke-free in recent years. Maine banned smoking in public housing in 2012.

The trend comes partly in response to federal pressure. Although the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development does not require local housing agencies to ban smoking, the agency took a stance on the issue in 2009, issuing a notice "strongly" encouraging smoke-free policies because of the health risks associated with tobacco use and secondhand smoke.

Public health officials, researchers and interest groups, too, have called for smoking bans.

Since HUD's statement, more housing agencies have opted to go smoke-free as officials in cities nationwide have also pushed to curb smoking -- even from electronic cigarettes -- in other public places. According to the agency, more than 500 local housing authorities now prohibit smoking in at least some properties.

Although PHA's board reached quick consensus Thursday to adopt the ban, which has been under discussion for about three and a half years, the new regulations are not without opposition.

Asia Coney, the president of PHA's resident advisory board as well as a member of its board of commissioners, voted for the policy, but acknowledged that not all residents stand behind it.

"The actual attitude as it relates to residents is mixed," Coney said after the meeting. Some, she said, have argued that the housing authority should not prohibit smoking, given that it's legal; others have pushed for a ban out of health concerns.

Greg Brinkley, president of the Abbottsford Homes, served on a task force that informed the policy's creation, but said he opposes the language passed Thursday.

Given that tobacco is addictive, officials should focus their resources on helping smokers, he said, rather than rushing to a ban.

"I can support it from a health standpoint, but not at the expense of people's rights," said Brinkley, himself a former smoker. "Some people smoke because they have to."

Still, Kelvin A. Jeremiah, PHA's president and CEO, praised the policy after the vote, and said its ultimate goal is to encourage smokers to quit. Residents pushed back against eviction as a consequence of smoking violations, he said. He added that he hopes offering counseling instead gives smokers the tools to stop.

"This isn't just about punishing tenants," Jeremiah said, acknowledging that the housing agency will need to assess in the coming months whether the enforcement measures actually work.

The ban is also a response to federal policy, according to PHA officials. Materials accompanying the resolution cited the federal government's stance against smoking as a reason for the ban; according to a PHA fact sheet, HUD has "indicated" that it soon intends to propose that public housing go smoke-free nationwide.

"We wanted to be ahead of the curve," Jeremiah said. "That's the national trend."

In other business Thursday, the PHA board recognized 55 of its young residents with college scholarships.

(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Daniel Luzer is GOVERNING's news editor.
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