Debate Forum 12/1/15

Need a light?

Should the government ban smoking in public housing?

By Tim Walker

Cigarette smoking, it might be said, is a dying habit.
The percentage of American adults who smoke has now reached an all-time low, according to a study released last year by the Centers for Disease Control. The percentage of adults over the age of 18 who smoke dropped from 20.9 percent in 2005 to a record low of 17.8 percent in 2013. Over the course of those eight years, the number of U.S. smokers dropped from 45.1 million to 42.1 million, the report reveals.
Armed with decades of research proving beyond any reasonable doubt that smoking causes heart disease, strokes and lung cancer and that cigarette smoking is the number one preventable cause of death in this country, federal and state legislators have done what they’ve seen as right. Bans on smoking in areas such as restaurants, bars, stadiums and workplaces have made smoking in public an almost forgotten habit. On Oct. 1 in England, it became illegal to smoke in any car with a minor, and seven U.S. states now have similar laws regulating or outright prohibiting smoking in cars when minors are present.
But what about the privacy of your home? A man’s home is his castle, they say … isn’t it?
Not, evidently, when that castle is subsidized by the government. The Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington recently proposed a rule that would require more than 3,100 public housing agencies to go smoke-free within the next few years. The move would eliminate smoking in more than 1.2 million public housing units across the nation. Sate and local agencies would be required to design policies prohibiting lit tobacco products in all living units, indoor common areas, administrative offices and in all outdoor areas near housing and administrative office buildings, HUD officials said.
“We have a responsibility to protect public housing residents from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, especially the elderly and children who suffer from asthma and other respiratory diseases,” HUD Secretary Julian Castro said when announcing the measure. “This proposed rule will help improve the health of more than 760,000 children and help public housing agencies save $153 million every year in healthcare, repairs and preventable fires.”
Since 2009, the federal government has been pressing for smoking bans in all public housing. During that time more than 600 state and local agencies, encompassing more than 200,000 households nationwide, have voluntarily banned indoor smoking in their housing units. In their proposal to ban all smoking in public housing, federal officials said that the surgeon general’s office had concluded that there was no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke and that separating smokers and nonsmokers, building ventilation and cleaning the air could not eliminate exposure. That, officials said, could be accomplished only by complete elimination of smoking from indoor spaces.
Opponents of HUD’s proposed smoking ban say that such a measure infringes on the right to personal choice of all public housing residents and on their pursuit of even the small comfort that smoking a cigarette provides. They say this is just another example of the American “nanny state” trying to govern every facet or our daily lives, and that a ban on smoking in public housing would be expensive in the long run, and unenforceable.
Proponents of the measure counter that the evidence is clear for all to see: smoking kills. It is unfair, they say, to subject elderly and minor residents to secondhand smoke when it can be prevented. It will obviously save our government millions of dollars, they argue, and will make public housing safer for everyone. A person who chooses to live in government-subsidized housing is required to follow the government’s rules, they say. The landlord calls the rules, and in this case, the landlord is our government. If they don’t like those rules, then they are obviously free to find shelter elsewhere.
Is banning smoking in public housing a health or a safety issue? Is it a cost-cutting measure? Or is it just another attempt by a meddling government to control the behavior of people who are already struggling?

Tim Walker is 50 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their 2 children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz and black t-shirts.

Full of hot air

By Ben Tomkins

I have written extensively on the awful health impacts that smoking has on the human body, the effects of second-hand smoke, and I’ve read the majority of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, in which the largest tobacco companies admitted to systematically covering up the carcinogenic implications of tobacco smoke and marketing directly to young people. Smoking is inarguably going to kill you, and will damage the health of those around you.
I support the total ban on smoking on airplanes, public places, and policies requiring smokers to be a particular distance away from entrances to buildings so that people who don’t want to inhale second-hand smoke don’t have to walk through it on the way in and out of the workplace. All of this is perfectly common sense, and I am in favor of supporting legislation to protect members of the public who don’t smoke from other members of the public who do.
Of course, the next word is “however…”
The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) new initiative to ban lit tobacco products in 1.2 million public housing units across the country has a fatal flaw. It is designed to prohibit smoking in common areas, administrative offices and near entrances to both administrative and housing properties, and that’s all perfectly fine. There’s nothing up to that point that is above and beyond what has already been done in many states. Unfortunately, the proposal also wants to ban smoking inside the actual residences as well.
This crosses a line both physically and socially. As much as governments and private businesses have worked to protect physical locations when it comes to tobacco smoke, there is no more protected space in favor of the individual in this country than the threshold of one’s private residence. At the very least, if it is going to be mandated that public housing residents cannot smoke within their houses, then they must be granted the tradeoff of being able to smoke on, say, their balcony or within a reasonable distance outside the building. To eliminate it entirely is to take absolutely zero notice of the fact that 14 percent of public housing residents already smoke, and the policy will, in effect, force them to quit smoking immediately. It’s a fatuous outlook.
Of course, smoking is neither a right, nor are smokers a protected class. Even landlords have the right to designate their private rentals as non-smoking properties, and that’s all well and good. If a landlord chooses to do so then they are creating a potential financial barrier for themselves as well as a housing barrier for prospective tenants; there is some give-and-take in the arrangement. However, once someone is already living under a lease and it is an entirely different matter.
Even if over 90 percent of current smokers in public housing units quit immediately, you’re still talking about dealing with over 13,000 housing units, and I’m being wildly optimistic about how many people will actually quit. In many ways, it’s the same argument one can make for the total deportation of undocumented immigrants. It’s fine in theory to sign a piece of paper with a flourish, but actually enforcing it is a different matter.
Budgets for public housing authorities have been dropping at an alarming rate. “Your average executive director is trying to figure out how to keep the light on and the doors open and operating in the next three to five years,” according to Timothy Kaiser, the executive director of the Public Housing Authorities Directors Association that represents over 1,900 housing authorities. In general, offices are understaffed, infrastructure is crumbling, and thousands of units are being lost every year as a result.
Therefore, enforcing the ban from an administrative perspective is basically going to be a non-priority, and also impossible. In fact, the only practical enforcement would be tenants informing on one another, but if a door to a private residence is closed then speculation and hearsay—not to speak of providing proof strong enough to kick someone out—are begin to edge up against the right to privacy issue. It’s a very slippery slope.
The bottom line is, this is a piece of legislation that sounds excellent when trumpeted through a megaphone, but isn’t going to produce the effect of “improve[ing] the health of more than 760,000 children and help public housing agencies save $153 million every year in healthcare” that it claims it will. It will stop employees from smoking indoors and require residents to smoke outside, which they are already required to do in most states anyway. It will put legislation in front of organizations that don’t have the manpower or willpower to enforce it anyway, not to speak of pure capital, and ultimately slam into the front door of those private residences.
If a real, meaningful impact is to be made on public health by way of smoking legislation for public housing, there is going to have to be a compromise allowing smokers to smoke either on a balcony or on the grounds. Those are simple changes most reasonable smokers would be happy to accommodate. However, once you force the issue, all you’re going to do is create a situation where people get better at hiding it inside where they’ve got some protection of privacy. There are solutions for the negative effects of smoking, but this isn’t one of them.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at

Legal obligation

Brad Sarchet

Once again this seems to be an issue of our rights and when those rights can legitimately/legally be express and when they should legitimately/legally be prohibited. I think the rights at issue here are 1) those granted to individuals to do as they wish with their own bodies and, 2) those granted to property owners. Regarding the former, the questions are: When do individuals have the right to smoke and when should this right be limited? And regarding the latter: When do property owners have the right to dictate what occurs in/on their own property and when should this right be limited?
As we well know, an individual’s rights only go so far. If allowing an individual to express his or her rights causes harm to others against their will, especially “at-risk” populations, then expressing those rights must be curtailed. Examples of such limitations on individual rights abound, as have been described in previous debates. We all know that the right to free speech legitimately and legally ends when it brings potential harm to others against their will, as in yelling “Fire!” in a movie theater, when inciting a riot, or when causing slander. In a previous debate I also argued that our right to bear arms is legitimately prohibited when carrying weapons would do more potential harm than good, as in an airport or government court house.
If we apply the above to an individual’s right to smoke, then clearly this right should be limited in many, many cases. Barring the tobacco industries’ lame arguments that first and second-hand smoke do not cause disease, everyone is well aware that they do. As stated in the Debate Center, “cigarette smoking is the number one preventable cause of death in this country.” I don’t know the source of that statement, but I do not for one second doubt its accuracy.
So if we accept that an individual’s rights should be limited when they present harm to others, then cigarette smokers should be prohibited from smoking at any time and in any place in which their second-hand smoke affects other individuals against their will.
The rights granted to property owners is key in this debate, and I believe that this right has been unjustifiably limited in many cases, which I’ll discuss below.
There is clearly a difference between an owner’s right to ALLOW an activity on their property vs. their right to BAN an activity on their property. It seems that property owners are free to ban nearly any activity they choose … carrying weapons, smoking, eating, drinking and even wearing strong perfume! But property owners are not free to allow anything they choose on their own property, and this goes back to when an action causes harm against people’s will.
So, when do property owners have the right to dictate what occurs in/on their own property and when should this right be limited? This seems to depend on those who enter, work or live in the property, as well as the owner’s choice. First of all, if the government owns the property, then it is free to ban whatever it likes. So if they say “no smoking,” then there is no argument. The owners banned the practice and so if you live there or visit, you cannot do it. Period. The same is true in my own home. And I contend that this is simply an issue in which the owner of a property is promulgating a rule that bans an activity on their property, and certain tenants of the property just don’t like it. The owner of a private rental property is free to make the same decision, and if you’re a tenant and don’t like it, either smoke outside or leave.
But secondly, and perhaps most importantly, if the property is designed to accommodate at-risk populations, e.g., a hospital or day-care, then the rights of the owner to allow certain behavior is limited based on potential harm to those populations. And if public housing falls into this category, then the same rules apply. If public housing is designed to accommodate at-risk populations, as well as many who are not “at-risk” but still do not want to be exposed to second-hand smoke, then the owners may not even have the choice to allow smoking on the premises. Isn’t this the same argument we would make to prohibit smoking in hospitals or day-care centers? Even if the owners of such properties wish to allow smoking within the building, they are not legally able to do so. I think this nearly makes the issue moot.

Brad Sarchet, Ph.D., has advanced degrees in philosophy and physiology and is currently a biology professor at a local university. He is interested in the philosophy of science and animal physiology. He’s also an old hippy and Dead Head. Reach him at

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Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at

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