I remember in high school going to pick up one of my good friends, and when she would jump in the car, a wave of cigarette stench would join her. Notice I did not say a wave of cigarette smoke, for my friend did not smoke. However, she lived in a home where her father smoked inside, so it was impossible for her to avoid smelling of it as well. I didn’t particularly like the smell or appreciate when I would return home with the odor after a visit to her house, but I figured, hey, it’s his home and he has the right to do whatever he wants in his home within the law.
Though in recent years there has been a flood of states prohibiting smoking inside restaurants (including such tobacco states as Virginia and North Carolina), it is still perfectly legal for people to smoke inside their own homes. I am not necessarily fond of the practice, but I will defend their right to do this. After all, last I checked, cigarettes and cigars are legal.
But an article in last week’s New England Journal of Medicine raises an interesting question—what about public housing? Does the government have the right to ban tenants of public or subsidized housing from smoking indoors, and even on the residential property?
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which oversees public housing, has maintained that it does not require local public housing authorities to ban smoking in their buildings, but it also does not prevent a ban.
The benefits of removing cigarette smoke from multi-unit housing—especially low-income public housing—are compelling. For starters, a ban would exponentially reduce the health risks associated with secondhand and thirdhand smoke. (Thirdhand smoke comes from the toxic residue left on walls, carpets, flooring, and so on even after a smoking resident has moved out of the unit.) Even one smoker in a multi-unit building causes problems for everyone. Smoke travels far beyond the four walls of the room where the cigarette was lit, through air ducts, through cracks in the walls, and along plumbing lines, for example. And since there is a higher incidence of vulnerable groups —that is, children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the disabled or chronically ill—living in public housing, this health benefit is that much more important.
At the same time, a ban could reduce firsthand smoke. If you are used to lighting up a cigarette while you’re in bed or watching television and all of a sudden you’re forced to stop what you’re doing to step outside into the freezing cold or into the extreme heat to smoke, you might smoke fewer cigarettes. And if the ban includes all of the common areas on the property, and not just in enclosed spaces, that would especially make it a pain to smoke. Plus, these added complications could be just the push an addicted smoker needs to quit altogether.
The second gigantic benefit of banning smoking in public housing is that great motivator—money. The NEJM article says that the cost to completely decontaminate a two-bedroom unit can exceed $15,000, and a simple cleaning of a smoky unit is two or three times more expensive than for a unit where the tenants did not smoke. Obviously, if the dwellings are being subsidized by taxpayers, it makes tremendous policy sense to minimize those costs. In a related note, banning smoking would lower the risk of fire, which not only lowers reconstruction costs and insurance premiums, but also reduces risk of loss of property and life itself.
But critics argue that banning smoking in these homes violates the right to personal liberty and privacy based on the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Yet I live in a smoke-free, pet-free building. Of course, that’s because I rent, and the building owners have the right to set whatever rules they want.
What makes the question for public housing so intriguing is that it’s not always clear who really owns the unit. Some 7 million Americans live in public housing, and there are a few variations on how programs are set up (tenant-based, project-based, subsidy-based, Section 8, and so on). But what they generally have in common is that the individual pays a portion of the bill, often based on a percentage of income, and the government pays the rest. Do we consider the person in receipt of the subsidy to own the dwelling… or not? If the answer is yes, then they should be afforded the same rights as other homeowners, which includes the right to smoke indoors and on your own property. But since nothing is easy, the answer to that question varies. Some government-assisted housing programs subsidize privately-owned affordable housing; however, some of the programs simply subsidize government-owned buildings that allow the tenants to rent the unit at a rate they can afford. Do you think the ban should be applied differently in each situation or that there should be a sweeping rule for all those receiving assistance?
A final interesting argument against the ban is that people in public housing are dependent on such support and cannot do what more well-to-do citizens would if they disagreed with something their landlord or homeowners association enacted—and that is talk or vote with their feet… in other words, move. Low-income families who have already beaten the odds by simply getting placed in public housing cannot rightly afford to move away. And if they are truly addicted to the nicotine in this legal product, what do the regulators expect them to do? Tough cookies, and kick the habit, I guess. Or maybe the agent enforcing the ban would have to pay for a smoking cessation program.
If we are willing to go this far, though, why not just ban cigarettes and cigars altogether? If soon the only place people will be able to smoke is in the private, single-unit residence of a rich person, how ridiculous has the act of selling the product become?
This is all not to mention the inadequate resources that exist to enforce such a ban. Illegal drugs are also not allowed in public housing, yet statistics insist they are rampant. Plus, it would be pretty morally and legally challenging to evict a tenant of public housing who most likely has nowhere else to go.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting we ban cigarettes in America. Nor am I suggesting that people living in government-subsidized, multi-unit housing ought to be able to cheapen, if not ruin, it with smoke. But the questions raised are important. What is your take? All opinions and comments are encouraged.