U.S. to Ban Smoking in Public Housing Nationwide

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Scott Ball / Rivard Report

East Meadows, a mixed income housing complex on the Eastside of San Antonio.

Smoking will be banned in all of the nation’s 1.2 million public housing units, according to a Wednesday announcement by U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julián Castro.

The final rule, to be adopted within 18 months, would bring 2,500 public housing authorities (PHAs) nationwide up to speed with the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) and 6o0 others that have independently implemented the ban.

“Every child deserves to grow up in a safe, healthy home free from harmful second-hand cigarette smoke,” Castro stated in a news release. “HUD’s smoke-free rule is a reflection of our commitment to using housing as a platform to create healthy communities.”

The ban, which applies to all housing units except “mixed-finance projects,” is part of a push that began in 2009, when HUD strongly encouraged PHAs to provide smoke-free environments.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the policy is expected to save public housing agencies $153 million every year in repairs and preventable fires, including $94 million in secondhand smoke-related health care, $43 million in renovation of smoking-permitted units, and $16 million in smoking-related fire losses.

These benefits, HUD believes, will far outweigh the predicted $7.7 million annual cost of implementing and enforcing the policy.

In response to HUD’s encouragement, the San Antonio Housing Authority decided to execute the ban in 2012.

“We began exploring a non-smoking policy in 2011 and, at that time, surveyed our residents to listen to their opinions before we moved forward with the smoking ban,” SAHA Interim President and CEO David Nisivoccia stated in a news release. “An overwhelming 80% of residents were in favor of the new policy.”

Enforcing the rule has come with a learning curve, however. Based on the number of complaints it received from residents about secondhand smoke, the Housing Authority has dropped the number of chances it gives non-compliant residents from five to three, offering verbal and written warnings before issuing a 30-day lease termination notice.

Describing smoking bans as a selling point in most private housing markets, HUD Press Secretary Heather Fluit emphasized that the ban is meant to protect non-smokers, in particular children and the elderly, and not discriminate against people addicted to tobacco usage.

“It’s not about making a smoker-free housing environment,” she told the Rivard Report. “It’s about making a smoke-free housing environment.”

Both the national rule and the Housing Authority’s policy ban smoking within 25 feet of public housing and administrative office buildings, but permit smoking-designated areas outside this range.

“We recognize that smoking is an addiction, so we’re not trying to tell them what to do or be Big Brother about it,” SAHA Spokesperson Rosario Neaves told the Rivard Report.

Fluit said what some may perceive as an overreach of government is really a protection of individuals’ rights to protect their health.

“People like living in smoke-free environments,” she said. “And for people living next to smokers, they don’t get to choose whether they live next to someone who’s smoking.”

While some have questioned whether a Republican administration would preserve the federal mandate, Fluit said the health, safety, and financial benefits make Castro confident it will remain intact.

“The public health benefit to this policy is so tremendous, and the residents’ support for going smoke-free is so tremendous out there, that this rule will stick,” Castro said, according to a New York Times report.

The HUD ban relates specifically to cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and hookahs, but not vapes or Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS), stating that “research on ENDS is still developing and lacks clear consensus.”

Though marijuana is not covered by the rule, Fluit said other HUD rulings prohibit using the substance in public housing facilities, even in the eight states where it’s legal.

The leading preventable cause of death in the country, smoking kills an estimated 480,000 Americans each year and can have serious secondhand effects on children.

“For children who are exposed to second-hand smoke, it can mean everything from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and ear infections to asthma,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivk H. Murthy stated in a press release. “Protecting our children and families from the devastation caused by secondhand smoke must be a priority for all sectors of our society, including public housing.”

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