National

Feds move to make public housing a tobacco smoke-free zone

Gerardo Barro enjoys a cigarette outside Miami’s Robert King High Towers public housing complex. The Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed a rule Thursday that would require the more than 3,100 public housing agencies across the country to make their properties smoke-free.
Gerardo Barro enjoys a cigarette outside Miami’s Robert King High Towers public housing complex. The Department of Housing and Urban Development proposed a rule Thursday that would require the more than 3,100 public housing agencies across the country to make their properties smoke-free. AP

An Obama administration plan to ban indoor smoking at public housing properties has drawn praise from health experts and concern from others who fear violations of the policy would cause some low-income tenants to lose their homes.

A rule proposed Thursday by the Department of Housing and Urban Development would require the nation’s 3,100 public housing agencies to ban lit tobacco products – including cigarettes, cigars and pipes – in all homes, indoor common areas and administrative offices in their developments.

Smoking is already banned through voluntary policy in more than 228,000 of the nation’s nearly 1.2 million public housing units. The new proposal, if finalized, would expand the no-smoking rule to the remaining 940,000-plus units.

“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 a statement by HUD Secretary Julián Castro.

The U.S. surgeon general estimates that 41,000 adult non-smokers die each year from lung cancer and heart disease due to secondhand tobacco smoke.

In addition, secondhand smoke causes hundreds of newborns to die each year from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the surgeon general estimates.

“Affordable and healthy housing should not be mutually exclusive and this proposed rule helps to ensure that residents in public housing can breathe smoke-free air where they live,” said a statement from Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Banning smoking in public housing would save the federal government $153 million a year, according to a 2014 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most of the money – $94 million – would come from declines in tobacco-related health care. Another $43 million would be saved on the renovation of units where smoking was allowed. Declines in smoke-related fire damage would save $16 million, the CDC estimated.

Although she had not yet read the proposal, Sheila Crowley, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said her group supports the proposed smoking ban. But she’s concerned that the rule could be used to evict violators.

“Our only concern is that there be enough protections and help, especially for people with mental illness or elderly people that have serious tobacco addictions, that they don’t end up losing their homes as a result of this,” Crowley said. “. . . Some of our members who are public housing residents are very worried about this.”

Hansen had another concern.

“To truly realize the potential health benefits of smoke-free public housing policies, residents who want to quit must have access to affordable and comprehensive (smoking) cessation services through private insurance, Medicaid or Medicare,” Hansen said.

A HUD spokesman said the agency plans to help public housing agencies partner with other groups to provide smoking cessation classes or programs.

HUD’s proposal didn’t make clear how potential violations of the rule would be handled. More than 500 public housing authorities have already established smoke-free rules in at least one building, according to HHS.

In most of these buildings, violators are typically given multiple warnings, with evictions occurring only as a last resort.

Officials expect to receive suggestions on how to deal with potential violators during the 60-day public comment period for the proposal.

Comments or suggestions about the proposal can be submitted at www.regulations.gov. Written comments should be mailed to the Regulations Divisions, Office of General Counsel, Department of Housing and Urban Development, 451 7th Street SW, Room 10276, Washington, D.C. 20410.

The HHS proposal would not apply to so-called “Section 8” housing, which are private rental units paid for with HUD funds.

The ban would likewise not apply to electronic cigarette devices and water pipe tobacco products known as hookahs. But HHS will seek public comment on whether to extend the ban to these products as well.

  Comments