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Smoke-free public housing good for health, safety and costs

Sorry, smokers, but soon there will be one less place for you to light up: in Tacoma’s publicly subsidized housing. No doubt many smokers are dreading the March 1 smoking ban approved recently by the Tacoma Housing Authority’s board. But it’s a positive step not only for their neighbors and those they live with, but also for taxpayers.

A smoking ban pays off big-time in better health and enhanced safety. It will help reduce other housing clients’ exposure to secondhand smoke, which is estimated to kill 50,000 nonsmokers nationwide each year. And it will make them less vulnerable to perishing in a residence fire.

Each year, almost 1,000 people die in fires caused by cigarettes and other smoking materials. In many cases, the smoker falls asleep and the unattended cigarette catches bedding, clothes or furniture on fire.

But the smoker isn’t the only one at risk. A quarter of those who die in smoking-related fires are the smokers’ children, roommates or neighbors who live in the same building. The minute the THA smoking ban goes into effect, the health and life expectancy of everyone in proximity to the smokers will be affected for the better.

Beyond the obvious health reasons to ban smoking in public housing are the cost savings for taxpayers. Bans reduce the expense of insuring housing units, cleaning them and repairing damage done by smokers. Ask restaurateurs and hoteliers how much less expensive it is to clean facilities where smoking is not allowed.

THA is not breaking new ground with this policy; many landlords prohibit smoking in their buildings, and scores of public housing authorities nationwide have already instituted bans, including Seattle, Portland, Boston and Detroit. The experiences of those cities should help THA as it implements its own ban.

Housing authority residents who smoke should be encouraged to take advantage of services that THA will offer in partnership with the Tobacco Free Alliance of Pierce County - including personalized cessation plans and nicotine patches. For truly hard-core smokers, electronic cigarettes are an alternative; they don’t involve flame or smoke.

Residents need to recognize that taxpayer-subsidized housing is a privilege - one that others are waiting in line for - and they should abide by conditions attached to it. If smoking is more important to them than the THA housing, they are free to leave. But the better alternative is to look at this ban as an opportunity to finally make the health decision they know is in their best interest: to kick the habit.