There’s a cruel irony about smoking: Those who can least afford to smoke are the ones most likely to.
Higher-income, well-educated people have all but given up smoking in recent years. The 17 percent of adults who do still smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control, are disproportionately low-educated and more likely to be on Medicaid – the health care program for those with limited resources.
Too many of these low-income people are spending a big share of what little income they have on cigarettes. And as any smoker can testify, the price of smoking has risen significantly in recent years. A one-pack-a-day habit costs more than $5,000 a year; even rolling your own costs more than $1,850 a year.
But smoking isn’t just costly at the personal level. It also presents a huge public health expense – an estimated $300 billion annually in health care costs and lost economic productivity. Not to mention about 480,000 deaths each year.
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The fight against smoking has been as successful as it has due in large part to policies that have increasingly made it harder for smokers to light up. As late as the 1980s, before workplace smoking bans started becoming widespread, it was common for workers to smoke on the job. And until public smoking bans went into effect in many cities and states, restaurants and other gathering places were filled with harmful secondhand smoke.
Smoking restrictions – as well as higher tobacco taxes and education efforts – paid off, and many smokers decided either to cut way back or kick the habit entirely.
Now, belatedly, the federal government is seeing the wisdom in banning smoking in publicly subsidized housing. The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a proposed rule change last week that would ban smoking in public housing units and common areas.
40%How much less it costs to clean a housing unit vacated by a nonsmoker compared to a smoker
The ban recognizes the fact that smoking doesn’t just affect smokers. In apartment buildings, the air circulates into other units, affecting the health of nonsmokers and young children. It also creates higher maintenance costs, as smokers’ units invariably cost more to clean between tenants.
Then there’s the fire danger. Leaving smoking material unattended is the leading cause of home fire deaths, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. It’s one thing for a smoker to cause a fire in his own, unattached home; it’s another if it takes place in a multi-unit building, endangering the lives and property of many others. One-quarter of those who die in smoking-related fires are the smoker’s children, roommates or neighbors who live in the same building.
The new HUD policy is a non-issue here because the Tacoma Housing Authority has banned smoking in its units since March 2013. THA Executive Director Michael Mirra says the policy has worked well and was supported by 84 percent of residents who were polled before it went into effect.
The ban has reduced THA’s cost of cleaning and preparing residences for the next occupant because cleaning costs are about 40 percent less in an apartment or home occupied by a nonsmoker, he says. There have been no smoking-related fires since the ban went into effect.
THA offers smoking cessation resources (including classes and patches); HUD would be wise to do the same if its ban is implemented.
Publicly subsidized housing is a privilege, not a right, and there’s a long list of applicants for it. There are too many good reasons to ban smoking. HUD’s proposal should move forward.