Paul Sancya / AP

US mulls smoking ban for public housing nationwide

Proposed smoke-free rule would affect nearly 1 million units of public housing, saving an estimated $153M a year

The federal government proposed a rule Thursday that would ban smoking inside — and in the immediate vicinity of — public housing units, a move that would affect nearly a million subsidized units across the country.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the surgeon general said the proposal (PDF) would prohibit lit tobacco products from being used in public housing units, indoor common areas and administrative offices, as well as outdoors within 25 feet of the buildings.

If the rule is adopted, public housing units would have 18 months to implement it.

“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 press release.

Since 2009, HUD has encouraged public housing agencies to adopt smoke-free policies, with about 600 agencies, overseeing some 228,000 housing units, doing so since then. The new smoke-free rule would affect the remaining 940,000 public housing units across the country.

A 2014 study (PDF) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that a smoking ban in public housing would save $153 million a year in health care costs related to secondhand smoke, renovation expenses and losses from smoking-related fires.

Secondhand smoke exposure can cause respiratory health problems like asthma and ear infections in children and infants and lead to heart disease, stroke and lung cancer in adults, according to the CDC. Though exposure to secondhand smoke has waned in the last few decades because smoking has declined significantly in the U.S., more than one-third of nonsmokers who lived in rental housing in the U.S. were exposed to secondhand smoke in 2012, the CDC said.

The proposed rule did not mention the use of electronic cigarettes, tobacco-free devices that dispense nicotine as an inhalable vapor. While e-cigarettes, which are not yet fully regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, are much less harmful than traditional cigarettes, some studies have shown that they contain harmful levels of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. As a result, New York City has banned the use of e-cigarettes in all indoor and outdoor areas where smoking is also against the law.

The proposed HUD rule is open for public comment for the next 60 days.

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