photo by Michael Himbeault
I have never smoked tobacco – or anything else – and at my age, it’s a safe bet that I never will. But if I want to light up in the privacy of my own home, nobody is going to stop me.
That is true whether the home in question is a freestanding colonial in New York or a high-rise condominium in Florida. My wife and I are fortunate enough to own both. But if I resided in one of the public housing projects that exist just a few miles away from either, it would be a different story.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development last week issued a rule banning smoking in public housing developments nationwide. Not only are residents forbidden from smoking in indoor common areas and administrative offices, but also in their own living space and in outdoor areas within 25 feet of the building. The change is estimated to affect more than 940,000 units across the country.
According to The Associated Press, around 228,000 public housing units were already smoke-free before the rule, and many cities previously instituted partial bans. In New York, for instance, smoking has already been prohibited in the lobbies and hallways of public housing. But now residents cannot light a cigarette – or a cigar, or a hookah – in the privacy of their own homes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention praised the new regulation. CDC Director Tom Frieden issued the statement that “No level of secondhand smoke exposure is safe, and the home is the primary source of secondhand smoke for children.” American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown called the smoking ban a “lifesaver,” especially for very young or elderly residents. These reminders about the health effects of tobacco smoke, however, are miles off the mark – as many miles as separate my homes from the nearest public housing projects.
If a wealthy white Republican proposed to ban poor people from smoking in their own homes while permitting it for everyone else, there would be an immediate outcry that the plan was at best arrogant and patronizing, and at worst flat-out racist. I don’t think such an outcry would be misdirected. Is the rule any less flawed if the proposal comes from a Latino housing secretary who works for an African-American president?
HUD has pushed public housing agencies across the nation to ban smoking since 2009. That happens to be the year a family named Obama moved into a public housing unit in the nation’s capital at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The head of that household, a gentleman late of the state of Illinois, is known to have been a smoker himself, although an army of press aides worked diligently to prevent any photos of him engaging in his habit from reaching the public. Did HUD propose to ban smoking in the White House residential quarters? Not as far as I know.
It is also worth mentioning that not everyone who wants to quit smoking can – at least not right away. During the comment period on the HUD rule, advocates for the homeless expressed concern that tenants who are addicted to cigarettes will face eviction if they are unable to stop smoking through willpower alone. The final rule does allow residents to use e-cigarettes at home, which may be a viable substitute for some, but local housing authorities are permitted to ban those too. And given how many public places and businesses are smoke-free, the options for where else to go will be very limited in some areas of the country.
As for evictions, the administration is leaving enforcement in the hands of individual housing authorities. In Boston, where public housing has been smoke-free since 2012, officials say they first issue warnings, then fines, with eviction as a last resort. According to the Boston Housing Authority, no resident has yet gone to court over smoking violations. But HUD has opened the door for more aggressive housing agencies to pursue stricter enforcement if they wish.
This is but one of many regulations the Obama administration will promulgate in its final, if possibly fleeting, exercise of power over American lives. As I wrote last week, many such rules are apt to be overturned next year when President Donald Trump takes office with a Republican Congress. But in announcing the smoking ban last week, HUD Secretary Julian Castro practically dared Trump and the GOP to overturn the ban. It is a dare the incoming president and Congress should cheerfully accept.
When asked whether he thought the incoming administration would overturn the smoking ban, Castro said, “I’m convinced that no matter the political persuasion of the administration, the public health benefit to this policy is so tremendous and the resident support for going smoke-free is so tremendous ... that this rule will stick.”
Nobody is arguing that smoking is not bad. But it is no worse for poor people – and their children and neighbors – than it is for rich people. If you want to try to ban it for everyone, or even just everyone who lives in apartment buildings, go ahead. You can try. (Prohibition sure worked well with marijuana, didn’t it? Just ask President Choom.)
When you ban smoking only for poor people, over whom you have leverage by virtue of government benefits, you essentially tell them that they possess and deserve fewer rights within their own homes than I do. Or than President Obama does. Or than Secretary Castro does, because he won’t be moving into one of the public housing projects for which he is so quick to write restrictions. If Castro wants to smoke like a chimney in his own home, who is going to stop him?
Trump should take Castro’s dare, because it will reinforce the message to minority communities that, contrary to caricature, he respects them at least as much as Democrats who demand their votes and then treat them like children.
Don’t smoke. If you feel the need to smoke, I believe you should do it outside or away from your children. But ultimately it is your choice to make. You are entitled to just as much personal respect from your government as anyone else, regardless of the thickness of your wallet.