If You’re Poor, ‘No Smoking in Public’ Now Means You Can’t Light Up at Home

TakePart.com

Tue, 06 May 2014 13:57:04 PDT

Smoking in public has long been passé, but lighting up in the comfort of your own home? Go for it—unless you’re poor and living in government housing. A new policy approved by the Kansas City Housing Authority will prohibit smoking in all publicly owned housing developments. Fans of individual rights and freedoms and smokers are none too pleased with the decision.

“I really just don’t think they should be able to dictate what you can do in the privacy of your own home,” resident Beverly Moore, who has tried to quit smoking, told the Kansas City Star.

Moore better hope her latest effort to quit succeeds before the ban goes into effect on July 1. After that, she and the other residents of the more than 1,700 units managed by the housing agency won’t be able to smoke anywhere on the properties—indoors or outdoors. Since a whopping 40 percent of the city’s public housing residents smoke—and quitting is notoriously difficult—the Kansas City Housing Authority has agreed to give folks who request it an extension to Jan. 1, 2015.

“I have to provide a healthy environment for all my families to live in,” Edwin Lowndes, executive director of the housing authority, told the Star. Lowndes says the policy shouldn’t be a surprise: The majority of residents supported the decision in the agency’s surveys and comment period.

Kansas City isn’t alone in implementing this kind of ban. Puffing on cigarettes on public housing property was first outlawed in 2004 in Auburn, Maine. Two years later, Maine became the first state to ban smoking in all of its public housing units. Now the prohibition is in effect in Boston, Detroit, Houston, and about a dozen other cities. The Kansas City ban has its roots in a 2012 fire started by a smoker who dropped a cigarette. It set the resident’s building ablaze, displacing him and eight other people. The damage cost the housing authority $250,000. 

Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, told the Star that in 2009 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began championing smoking bans. “I would predict that over the next two years we’re going to see many more housing authorities doing this,” she said.

Encouraging people to quit is a worthy endeavor. But the decision to ban smoking in public housing feels like a kissing cousin to the debate over whether the 50 million Americans who use food stamps can purchase junk food. Choice and freedom shouldn’t just be the domain of folks wealthy enough to buy their home. However, civil liberties groups shy away from taking on legal challenges to government housing smoking bans because smokers are not considered a protected class. As long as a landlord isn’t discriminating on the basis of age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion, residents have to abide by the rules.

“Public housing is a federally subsidized benefit, and we can implement reasonable rules,” Lowndes said. “The health piece is the most important. The smoker here is impacting the nonsmoker here.”

What will happen to folks who can’t quit? How Kansas City polices the ban remains to be seen, but if residents are caught smoking, it will be treated as a lease violation. Three strikes and a rental agreement could be terminated. 

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