Should the government ban smoking in public housing?
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently proposed a rule that would require more than 3,100 public housing agencies (PHAs) across the country to implement smoke-free policies. Under HUD’s proposed rule, PHAs must ban the use of lit tobacco products (cigarettes, cigars or pipes) in all living units, indoor common areas, administrative offices and all outdoor areas within 25 feet of housing and administrative office buildings.
The reason for HUD’s proposal is twofold – to save money and to protect residents from the harms of secondhand smoke. Smoke from tobacco products can damage walls and other property, increasing maintenance and repair costs. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., killing 480,000 Americans each year, but secondhand smoke and even thirdhand smoke (i.e., particles from smoking that remain on surfaces) are also dangerous, particularly for children.
"We have a responsibility to protect public housing residents from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, especially the elderly and children who suffer from asthma and other respiratory diseases," said HUD Secretary Julián Castro. "This proposed rule will help improve the health of more than 760,000 children and help public housing agencies save $153 million every year in healthcare, repairs and preventable fires."
Housing smoking bans disproportionately affect low-income individuals
Although smoking bans are effective in decreasing cigarette smoking and secondhand smoke exposure, the policy proposed is regressive in that it places a greater burden on lower income individuals. Historically, smoking restrictions have disproportionately affected public housing residents. According to Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, 366 municipalities in the U.S. restrict smoking in multi-housing units and of those municipalities, only 70 have restrictions that apply to private or market rate multi-unit housing.
Too often low-income individuals who accept government support are subject to paternalism. In other words, the government limits their freedom – for what is presumed to be their own good – as a condition to receiving benefits. Multi-unit housing smoking bans are no exception.
Smoking bans should be expanded to private housing too
It may appear that the rationale for instituting smoking restrictions in public housing – saving taxpayers money – does not apply to private housing. However, governments subsidize a lot more than public housing, including tax reductions and subsidies to private real estate developers. As such, from an equity perspective, private real estate developers who receive subsidies should also be subject to the same rule to implement smoking bans.
Three states, California, Maine, and New Hampshire, and two cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, have included smoking restrictions as a criterion when considering whether to award tax credits. Developers do not have to include a smoke-free policy in their development, but their chances in the competitive process are improved if they do. Efforts such as these will help to achieve a goal expressed by the U.S. Surgeon General, which is to reduce secondhand smoke exposure for all, and that includes residents of both public and private housing.
“Everyone – no matter where they live – deserves a chance to grow up in a healthy, smoke-free home,” said U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy. "There is no safe level of secondhand smoke. So, when 58 million Americans – including 15 million children – are exposed to secondhand smoke, we have an obligation to act."
Azure Thompson, DRPH
Azure Thompson is a Research Scientist and Associate Director of
Policy Research and Analysis at Center on Addiction