Smokers are used to being banned from lighting up at restaurants, bars, airports and offices, but they may object to a new effort to ban them from smoking in another locale: their homes.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is considering a new rule that would ban smoking in public housing nationwide. It's currently taking comments on the proposal (at regulations.gov), which would prohibit tobacco smoking in all living units and indoor spaces, as well as in outdoor spaces within 25 feet of public housing.
That would be quite a change for Colorado Springs, where only one public housing building offers nonsmoking living — in a single wing. And Chad Wright, executive director of the Colorado Springs Housing Authority, says that while he supports the concept of banning smoking, he expects residents to give "a lot of pushback."
The Independent wrote about the issue of smoking in public housing and apartments several years ago ("In a smoke-filled room ..." cover story, Aug. 1, 2012). The local housing authority, which was under different leadership then, wasn't considering banning smoking, though studies had shown that smoke travels through buildings and that both secondhand and thirdhand smoke is harmful. (Thirdhand smoke is smoke that accumulates on surfaces over time, and resists normal cleaning.) Their reasons included: the difficulty of enforcing nonsmoking policies, the rights of tenants to use their homes as they see fit, and the expense and hassle of switching a building to nonsmoking (which usually involves paint and new carpet at a minimum).
Still, even then a small contingent of angry residents was expressing frustration that smoke was worsening their health problems and leading to fire danger, especially in buildings where residents use oxygen tanks. About one-third of the housing authorities in Colorado had adopted some nonsmoking policies or were in the process of doing so at the time, and HUD had issued a proclamation urging such policies in 2009. (Interestingly, nonsmoking policies often pertain to all indoor smoking, including marijuana, though HUD's current proposal refers to "lit tobacco products.")
Nonsmoking housing is in high demand as fewer people light up. According to the Colorado Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 17.3 percent of El Paso County adults smoked in 2011-2012 (the most recent data available), compared to 20.3 percent in 2005-2006. And a recent study by a research team of the American Lung Association in Colorado found that banning smoking in multi-unit housing reduced exposure to secondhand smoke, led more smokers to try to quit, and decreased the number of cigarettes that residents smoked daily.
It also found that nonsmoking policies reduce the cost of turning over a unit, and that 58 percent of resident smokers and 92 percent of nonsmokers support nonsmoking policies in their building. That study led the Colorado Board of Health, the Colorado Tobacco Review Committee and the Office of Health Equity to urge public housing authorities to ban smoking.
Wright says he and his board plan to keep an eye on the HUD policy, which likely will be extensively reviewed. If passed, it won't become active for 18 months. Wright says he's hoping the policy will include funding for turning over apartments and creating nonsmoking areas, and advice on enforcement. With 707 units of traditional public housing, and a shrinking budget and staff, he worries that making such a large-scale change could be tricky.
"I think the devil," he says, "really will be in the details."