Over 1 million American households are about to become smoke-free thanks to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s proposed nation-wide ban on smoking inside and within 25 feet of all public housing. While the current language does not extend to e-cigarettes, the agency has made clear that adding e-cigs to the ban is under consideration, stating, “The absence of a prohibition on the use of e-cigarettes in this rule should not be read as an endorsement of e-cigarettes as an acceptable health alternative to cigarettes.”
Public Housing Smoking Ban: The Good and the Bad
The intentions of such a smoking ban are understandable. Thousands of children who live in public housing are unwillingly exposed to second-hand smoke every day, and smoking contributes to higher healthcare costs, for which tax dollars must often cover the expense. Indoor smoking also increases the costs of building maintenance, which can lower the availability of much needed housing. However, the Department of Housing has openly acknowledged that enforcing such a ban could have dire effects on tenants with the most need, such as elderly and disabled residents, who could face eviction for lighting up a cigarette. Instead of punishing smokers, why not help them quit smoking by offering an alternative with the potential to be better for everyone?
Smoking Indoors: Tobacco vs. E-cigs
In addition to harming the health of inhabitants, smoking tobacco indoors can lead to discolored walls and a lingering smell in the home, so keeping public housing smoke-free sounds reasonable. Fortunately, e-cigs do not damage the people or property around them: Public Health England recently affirmed that e-cigs are 95 percent safer than tobacco cigarettes based on their review of all available research. The majority of the carcinogens in tobacco smoke are absent in e-cig vapor, and studies that have identified carcinogens in e-cig vapor found levels far below those present in tobacco smoke. According to the agency’s report, “There is no doubt that smokers who switch to vaping reduce the risks to their health dramatically.”
More importantly, increasing evidence affirms that e-cigs could be better for everyone’s health because vaping doesn’t negatively impact non-vapers. A study from the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, which measured nicotine levels in the homes of smokers, e-cig users and non-users, discovered, “no significant difference in the amount of nicotine in homes of e-cigarette users and non-users.”
Tobacco Harm Reduction for Low-Income Americans
Smoking has always been more concentrated in economically disadvantaged populations. According to the CDC, smoking rates for adults living below poverty level are nearly twice that of adults living above poverty level. Adults with disabilities are also more likely to smoke and live in public housing. While it makes sense to encourage these people to quit smoking, leaving them with no alternative to tobacco is setting them up to fail.
The public housing smoking ban is intended to protect tenants and taxpayers; however, including e-cigs in the ban would be illogical and could do more harm than good. Anyone who is a former smoker knows that tobacco addiction is a very real medical condition, so simply imposing a smoking ban won’t prevent people from relapsing. In the absence of cessation tools, smokers will continue to smoke and possibly face eviction.
Public Health England has cited e-cigs as a contributing factor to lower smoking rates in the U.K, and a similar trend can be observed in the U.S. as a rise in e-cig sales has coincided with a decline in overall smoking rates. Research continues to document that e-cigs can help people cope with tobacco withdrawal and eventually kick the habit. Allowing people to use e-cigarettes in public housing could be a fair compromise for everyone since e-cigs pose minimal risks to vapers and no risk to bystanders.