Is proposed ban on smoking in public housing fair and just?

A new federal proposal would ban smoking in public housing homes — a move that could impact some 1.2 million households across the nation.

Cigarette smoking kills 480,000 Americans each year, making it the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced last week that the proposal is intended to protect residents from secondhand smoke in their homes, common areas and administrative offices on public housing property.

“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 in a statement, adding the proposed rule would help public housing agencies save $153 million every year in health-care, repairs and preventable fires.

Stanford Law School professor Michelle Mello, who is also a professor of health research and policy and a core faculty member at Stanford Health Policy, has researched and written about this issue extensively, including in this article in The New England Journal of Medicine.

We asked Mello about her views on the federal smoking ban proposal.

What would be the greatest benefit to banning smoking in public housing?

There are lots of benefits, but to me the greatest benefit is to the 760,000 children living in public housing. Although everyone knows that secondhand smoke exposure is extremely toxic, not everyone knows how much children in multiunit housing are exposed — even when no one in their household smokes. Research shows that smoke travels along ducts, hallways, elevator shafts, and other passages, undercutting parents' efforts to maintain smoke-free homes. Also, chemicals from cigarette smoke linger in carpets and curtains, creating hazardous "third-hand smoke" exposure that especially affects babies and small children.

Do most public housing residents want a ban on smoking?

Yes. Exposure to cigarette smoke is a perennial complaint among public housing residents and surveys of residents show that strong majorities support smoke-free policies. They also show residents frequently report smoke incursions into their living spaces, and that these reports are much lower when multiunit housing buildings have 100 percent smoke-free policies than when they have only partial smoke-free policies or no policies. Secondhand smoke in public housing is also a problem because these residents have few housing choices; they generally can't "vote with their feet" by moving to a smoke-free environment.

Could this help tenants who don't have the political will, time, or financial ability, to sue landlords who ignore their claims of respiratory concerns?

Absolutely — not to mention that those lawsuits, even if they were brought, often would fail.  Generally, tenants' rights are whatever local housing codes and lease agreements say they are, and smoke-free buildings aren't typically part of that package. Smoke-free policies aren't a guarantee, of course, and there have been difficulties enforcing them among some of the local public housing authorities that have implemented them.  But when they're in place, housing authorities have more mechanisms and reason to ensure that residents are protected from smoke exposure than they do without the policies.

Many argue that what they do in their own home is their own business.

That argument fails as soon as a puff of smoke escapes their home and wafts into someone else's air supply.  It also fails whenever there's a dependent in the house, whether a child or an adult relative, who doesn't smoke. Let's not forget, nearly half of all public housing households include children. Finally, most smokers desire to quit. About 7 in 10 say they want to quit completely, and in one study, over 90 percent said they wished they had never started. When we're talking about an addiction, particularly one people generally want to kick, the trope of autonomy doesn't have a lot of traction.

There are those who will say this is another attack on low-income Americans — such as banning sugary drinks or limits to what people can buy with their food stamps — and that this smacks of government shaming the poor.

Although it's reasonable to question policies that disproportionately burden the poor, I don't think this is such a policy. The reason is that only a minority of public housing residents are smokers; most of these low-income residents are benefitted, not burdened, by smoke-free policies.  The majority are vulnerable people, including children and the elderly, who have a higher-than-average incidence of respiratory and other health problems — and who want to breathe clean air in and around their homes.

Could this proposal lead to fewer kids smoking that first cigarette?

Yes. Part of the "tobacco endgame" is to further denormalize smoking, to the point that the next generation of kids will not grow up seeing it as something adults do. This is a hard argument to make when a kid smells smoke every time he walks into the hallway of his building and sees groups of residents smoking on stoops. Smoking bans have really helped to marginalize smoking behavior in other settings, like airports, restaurants, hospitals and schools.  Multiunit housing is the next logical step.