Not in Here You Don’t: Plans to Ban Smoking in Boston Public Housing

Marisela Fermin

In January 2010, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced his vision for smoke-free public housing by 2014. The proposed ban would prohibit public housing residents from smoking within their apartment units and in shared common spaces. Individuals who want to smoke would have to do so outside their buildings.

Low-income smokers in MA also already have access to treatment through a Mass Medicaid smoking cessation program. (Call 1-800-TRY TO STOP for free anti-smoking counseling.) The first phase of the proposed plan is expected to include 100 smoke-free units by 2012, representing less than two percent of all Boston public housing. According to the Boston Herald, this will include units at Washington-Beech in Roslindale, and Old Colony and Franklin Hill in Dorchester.
The long-term goal of the plan is to lessen the effects of second hand smoke, especially on children. According to Nancy Rigotti, Director of the Tobacco Research and Treatment Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School, “The ban is likely to discourage children from taking up tobacco use, cut down on the number of cigarettes that smokers smoke, and encourage more of them to quit.”

Rigotti explains that “What we know about the effects of banning smoking in other places makes me think that it is likely that a ban on smoking in public housing will reduce the smoking rate among low-income Boston residents by reducing the opportunities to smoke and making smoking seem less socially acceptable.” Rigotti notes that while there is insufficient evidence to conclusively support the ban’s effect on decreasing low-income smoking levels, past smoking bans have been effective.

In July 2004, Massachusetts banned smoking inside of restaurants, bars, and the workplace as part of an effort to decrease secondhand smoke exposure. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health reports that exposure to secondhand smoke decreased among adult nonsmokers from 32 percent in 2002 to 15 percent in 2008. However, according to National Public Radio, while overall smoking rates have decreased significantly since the 1960’s, smoking rates for low-income Americans remain high.

Susan Sharp, a Cambridge resident and long-time smoker agrees with the proposed smoking ban. Sharp told SCN that her son grew up with her smoking inside, “He developed asthma…it took a long time to get his health regulated.” Sharp recognized that in order to improve her son’s health she needed to smoke outside. Today, Sharp’s son is fully-grown and healthy, and although Sharp still smokes, she “truly believe(s) that smoking should be done outside.”

Not all smokers share Sharp’s outlook. Many feel that the proposed ban would limit personal liberties. In an anonymous posting to Boston University’s The Daily Free Press, a disgruntled smoker stated, “This is against the Constitution if you ask me. Nobody can tell me where I can and cannot smoke. The government doesn’t pay my bills, I do!” This raises a controversial point: if the government subsidizes your bills—as is the case with public housing—is it then OK for them to regulate your behavior, or is this an unintended form of discrimination? The jury is still out.

If one lives alone or with a fellow smoker, why can’t those individuals continue to smoke within their apartment units? The response to this question is threefold. First, smoking is seen as a safety hazard to the building and its residents. In December 2009, a 62-year-old woman in Quincy, MA died of smoke inhalation when her cigarette allegedly started a fire. The Boston Globe reports that in Massachusetts alone, 18 people have died and approximately 30 others have been severely injured by burns or smoke inhalation from fires started by cigarettes since 1997. Second, there are economic issues involved. It is cheaper to renovate a non-smoking unit. Lastly, smoking can affect more than just the smoker, seeping into multiunit housing, bothering and potentially harming other residents.

In addition to questions of personal liberties and potential class discrimination, the proposed plan may face other challenges. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, approximately 56 percent of public housing tenants with families are single parents. If you are a single mother that happens to smoke, it seems obvious that you have one of two options: leave your children inside alone while you smoke outside, or bring your children outside with you. Both options have their respective risks. Some bans are easier proposed than done.