Smoking ban for public housing sparks backlash

Smoking ban for public housing sparks backlash
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Homeless advocates and public health officials are squaring off over a controversial Obama administration proposal to ban smoking in government-assisted housing projects.

The smoking ban has drawn praise from health officials who say it would spare non-smokers from the dangerous effects of secondhand smoke. But homeless advocates are enraged by the proposal, which they fear could force low-income residents who can’t kick the habit out of their homes.

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“We are extremely concerned that this rule will create additional homelessness,” said John Lozier, executive director of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

“Our primary concern about this policy is the fate of those who are unable to quit smoking and are evicted for this lease violation,” he added. “Evictions create homelessness."

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which declined to comment, sent the rule to the White House's Office of Management and Budget earlier this week for approval.

The smoking ban would apply to lit cigarettes, cigars and pipes. Residents would be prohibited from smoking not only in their homes but also in hallways, on balconies and porches and anywhere else within 25 feet of the apartment building.

It would apply to most public housing units, except those in buildings that are only partially government-funded. More than 700,000 public housing units where residents are not already prohibited from lighting up would be covered by the smoking ban.

HUD notes that the estimated 139,000 smokers living there would still be allowed to smoke when they are off-premises.

"People will not be forced to quit smoking," said Erika Sward, assistant vice president of the American Lung Association. "We will help them if they want to quit, but this is not about telling people they are no longer allowed to smoke. This is about making sure no one else is exposed to their smoke."

But critics say the smoking ban is a “witch hunt” that would create a “de facto prohibition” in neighborhoods where there are already restrictions on smoking in public.

“There is no place left to go,” said Audrey Silk, founder of Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment.

Smokers should be allowed to light up in the “privacy of their own homes,” she argued. “It’s no different than drinking a beer.”

Secondhand smoke can travel through walls and ventilation systems into other apartments, according to the surgeon general.

“People also have the right to breathe clean air in their homes,” said Vince Willmore, spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

“Most people want to be good neighbors,” Sward added. “They may not realize their smoke, if they’re living on the 10th floor, is hurting the child living on the second floor.”

Supporters say the smoking ban would protect more than 775,000 children, as well as elderly people and pregnant women, who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of secondhand smoke.

The surgeon general warns that “no amount of secondhand smoke is safe" and studies show it increases the risk of lung cancer, heart disease and childhood asthma.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), seven out of 10 smokers say they want to quit, and health officials believe the smoking ban could provide an incentive to kick the habit. But critics say quitting isn’t easy.

“It is not feasible that all smokers will be able to quit even if they are willing to do so,” Prairie State Legal Services, an Illinois-based law firm that serves low-income people, wrote in comments filed with HUD.

There are many lingering questions, including over what HUD should do to help smokers quit and how the agency should handle those who don't stop smoking indoors.

Both sides say HUD should offer counseling and medication to help smokers quit. And many argue eviction should only be a “last resort.”

In the proposed rule, HUD recommended public housing authorities “continue leasing to people who smoke,” so long as they do not light up inside their homes.

"This rule is not intended to contradict HUD’s goals to end homelessness,” the agency added.

But this has done little to ease the worries of advocates for the homeless.

The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities urged HUD to "balance the concerns around secondhand smoke with the risk of homelessness.”

The smoking ban could create a “fast track to eviction” for low-income residents who can’t afford market-rate housing, the group warned.

"No one should be made homeless because they are addicted to tobacco,” said Cary Sennett, president of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, who supports the smoking ban but doesn't want to see smokers evicted.

The concern is even greater for smokers who are disabled and have a difficult time leaving their apartment to smoke.

Critics of the smoking ban say they should be given corner apartments or rooms with balconies where they can smoke without bothering their neighbors. But the American Lung Association warns that smoke could still circulate throughout the apartment building. Instead, it recommends smokers with disabilities be placed near elevators and outdoor exits, so they can more easily get outside.

"Some have also argued that smoke-free policies discriminate against disabled individuals who may be less able to smoke outside,” Sward wrote in comments filed with HUD. "In fact, however, smoking inside buildings discriminates against the greater majority of nonsmoking disabled individuals because they cannot escape tobacco smoke infiltrating their own apartments."

HUD must also weigh whether to extend the smoking ban to electronic cigarettes and hookahs, which are not included in its proposal but could be added to the final rule.

Anti-tobacco groups want a broader rule. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says allowing the use of e-cigarettes in public housing units would “undermine the smoke-free policy.”

But critics of the smoking ban say e-cigarettes are an alternative that could be used to help get public housing residents off traditional cigarettes.

Health officials are also calling on HUD to extend the smoking ban to playgrounds, pools, basketball courts and other places where children play outside.

And the National Housing Conference is asking HUD to clarify whether the smoking ban applies to marijuana in states where recreational and medical marijuana is legal.

“Marijuana poses similar smoke and fire safety concerns,” the group said.