The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has issued a new federal rule that will ban smoking – cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and water pipes (hookah) – in all public housing units nationwide. HUD’s rationale for the rule is to “improve indoor air quality in public housing; benefit the health of public housing residents, visitors, and PHA staff, reduce the risk of catastrophic fires; and lower overall maintenance costs.” The rule, which will take effect in the fall of 2018, was first proposed last November and has been met with praise and criticism since its formal announcement was issued last week.
Currently, around 200,000 public housing units are smoke-free under voluntary smoking bans enacted by public housing agencies (PHAs) across the country. The nationwide ban would expand this to impact upwards of 1.2 million households. Here’s a basic summary of this rule: residents or visitors may not smoke in public housing units or within 25 feet of housing and office buildings. Individual PHAs may designate additional restrictions or ban smoking from the grounds altogether.
So, let’s assess what this means.
Over the past 50 years, research has shown time and again that smoking is linked to adverse health outcomes. With that in mind, HUD’s policy is a public health win, particularly for non-smokers. Secondhand smoke (SHS) is more easily transferred among residents living in multiunit residences, with tobacco smoke moving through air ducts, cracks in the walls and floors, through elevator shafts, and along plumbing lines, affecting units besides that of the smoker. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable.
We also know that vulnerable populations and those of lower socioeconomic status report higher rates of smoking tobacco products and, with the average cost of a pack of cigarettes at $5.51 in 2015, a significant proportion of income goes towards the habit. In theory, a ban on smoking in housing might encourage smokers to kick the habit, saving them money, protecting their health, and the health of other residents in their unit or in the facility, as well as PHA staff working in the building.
But therein lies a major problem with this rule. Much like there is sparse evidence that cigarette taxes reduce consumption, there is no evidence to support the theory that banning smoking in public housing will reduce the practice. To be sure, HUD didn’t formulate this rule with the sole purpose of curbing smoking, but to ensure that smokers don’t bear a disproportionate burden of this rule, it’s essential that smoking cessation information is provided to tenants. In this, the rule falls short, as HUD states that it “encourages PHAs to work with resident smokers,” but it is far from a requirement. And while Julián Castro, HUD’s secretary, said that HUD “[doesn’t] see this as a policy that is meant to end in a whole lot of evictions,” the fact is that PHA staff will be responsible for ensuring that this isn’t the case. Ultimately, this rule will undoubtedly benefit non-smokers, particularly children and the elderly. If done right, it could benefit smokers if PHAs work closely with these residents and provide support for them to quit. However, residents, communities, housing advocates, and HUD should remain watchful of how the rule is actually implemented come 2018, and ensure that the rule is not just another way to code an eviction with a “good” cause.