By Colin Campbell and Tim Prudente
Smoking is to be prohibited in federally subsidized public housing nationwide as soon as early next year under a rule announced Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The rule, which was proposed by the agency last year, bans lit tobacco products such as cigarettes, cigars and pipes in all indoor areas -- even inside people's apartments -- and within 25 feet of all buildings.
The agency is giving local public housing agencies 18 months to implement the policy.
The rule would bring more than 940,000 public housing units in line with the more than 228,000 across the country that have already gone smoke-free under a voluntary HUD policy or local initiatives. The ban does not apply to electronic cigarettes or smokeless alternatives such as snuff or chewing tobacco.
The prohibition is to be written into residents' leases. Repeated violations could lead to eviction.
One possible obstacle to the ban: President-elect Donald Trump could reverse it when he takes office. His transition team did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment.
Trump has reportedly offered the job of HUD secretary to retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson.
The Housing Authority of Baltimore City, the largest in the state, operates 11,000 public housing units. The agency has not yet implemented a smoke-free policy, spokeswoman Tania Baker said.
"It is our intent to fully comply with the rule within the prescribed timeframe," Baker said.
In his announcement, HUD Secretary Julian Castro said the rule would bring health benefits, such as the elimination of secondhand smoke.
The rule is expected to cost local public housing agencies $7.7 million per year. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it would save $153 million per year -- $94 million in secondhand smoke-related health care, $43 million in renovation of smoking-permitted units and $16 million in smoking-related fires.
Smoking causes more than 100,000 fires each year nationwide, resulting in more than 500 deaths and nearly half a billion dollars in property damage.
"HUD's smoke-free rule is a reflection of our commitment to using housing as a platform to create healthy communities," Castro said. "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."
Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen said she saw patients suffer and die from smoking when she worked as an emergency room doctor.
Secondhand smoke is a leading cause of asthma and breathing problems in children, Wen said. She called for the elimination of smoking in all indoor spaces.
"We at the Baltimore City Health Department applaud HUD's decision to eliminate smoking in public housing," Wen said. "This will protect all Baltimoreans and ensure that all of our children grow up in healthy, smoke-free homes."
But the rule elicited chuckles around Perkins Homes near Fells Point. Smokers wondered how it would be enforced.
"Good luck with that," one man said Wednesday, laughing, as he walked out of the Win Grocery and Deli.
Another man, who identified himself only as John, dragged on a cigarette and laughed, too.
"Hey, they're trying to ban our cigarettes," he shouted across the street. "How would they know we're smoking? They're going to fine us?"
About 1,400 people live in Perkins Homes. Tenant Candace Wormley, 31, doesn't smoke, but said the ban was absurd.
Nearby, Donnie Bowman agreed. He said he has smoked about a pack of Newports a day since he was a teenager. The 44-year-old prefers to smoke inside his home.
"It keeps the trouble out of my face," he said. "They ain't going to be able to stop it, not as long as my name is on the lease."
Chris Lewis, 42, said the ban felt arbitrary.
"Like I can't have goldfish," he said. "Once you pay your money and sign your lease, you should be able to smoke. I mean, that's crazy. Where are you all coming up with this? If you endanger yourself personally, your lungs, it's a choice -- it's your choice.
"It doesn't feel right."
HUD said it had received feedback on the difficulty of enforcing a smoking prohibition. The agency said the policy should be enforced like any other lease condition.
HUD encouraged local housing authorities to work with residents to develop smoke-free policies, which officials expect will lead to more compliance.
John Bullock, the city councilman-elect for the 9th District in West Baltimore, said the ban will be unpopular with longtime smokers -- even those who would like to quit.
But he pointed to high rates of hypertension, diabetes, respiratory problems and other illnesses in the area, and said the effects of secondhand smoke, especially on children raised in public housing, can't be overlooked.
"I know it's going to be hard for some folks to deal with," he said. "But I understand the rationale for doing it."
(c)2016 The Baltimore Sun