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NOBCO examines HUD’s smoke-free public housing policy

On July 31, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Smoke-Free Public Housing Policy took effect. It’s been in the works since 2009, initiated as an effort to improve the health of residents in public housing. The reality is people living in public housing will no longer be allowed to smoke where they live. Over the past 18 months HUD has been working with local public housing agencies to engage residents and tenant councils for a smooth transition.

The National Organization of Black County Officials (NOBCO), through its work with National African American Tobacco Prevention Network, realized that many people were not talking about this policy and thought it would be a good idea to bring it to the forefront before it actually took effect. Stepping up our game and raising awareness through webinars and social media helps us reach more people with relevant information where they are and when they’re available.

On April 30, we hosted a live webinar simultaneously with Facebook Live. The webinar, moderated by Helen Holton, included four guests who candidly discussed the policy. In attendance were Commissioner Loretta Smith, Multnomah County, Ore; Carol McGruder, co-chair, African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATLC); Leroy Ferguson, housing program specialist, HUD; and Earl Fowlkes, president, Center for Black Equity and chair, D.C. Human Relations Commission.

According to Leroy Ferguson, the chief architect of the policy, this idea was the result of discussions with colleagues on how to make public housing healthier for residents. The best way to improve the health of residents was to go smoke-free. The policy was enacted on Nov. 29, 2016 under then-HUD Secretary Julian Castro, and became policy 60 days later. Today, more than 700 Public Housing Agencies have formally adopted a smoke-free policy.

Commissioner Loretta Smith said, “Making public housing smoke-free will obviously be difficult because people are so used to being able to smoke in their homes… but we need to deal with respiratory issues… we need to give people a better quality of life.” Carol McGruder from the AATCLC stressed, “We need clean air for everyone in the community. This policy is not about people who smoke, it’s about where they smoke because when you are living with people who you share air with you have to be aware of them.”

On June 30, NOBCO reconvened for Part 2, joined by Commissioner Toni Carter, Ramsey County, Minn., and Kevin Jones, executive director, Urban Collation for HIV/AIDS Prevention Coalition, who went into further detail about the policy, smoking cessation and other types of smoking such as vaping and marijuana use.

“We need to continually work to connect the community around smoking cessation from youth to seniors; it’s an ongoing effort,” Carter said. Kevin Jones spoke about people living with HIV and how it relates to smoking. He said: “People have to be aware of the dangers of smoking and how it counteracts the positive effects of taking medication.”

In several states, including Washington D.C., marijuana is now legal in some form. The focus of this policy is where you can smoke. The HUD rule doesn’t differentiate what you’re smoking, it mandates no smoking in public housing.

The question was asked, “What is someone who uses marijuana for medical purposes supposed to do?” Ferguson reminded participants, “marijuana is still illegal on the federal level and HUD is a federal agency.” The waters get murky, however, around alternatives to smoking tobacco such as vaping, medical marijuana, and the latest craze among youth with Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems, or ENDS.

Enforcement came up, and Ferguson said, “There are graduated enforcement techniques that will be used to prevent a PHA from evicting a person after a single incident in violation of the smoke free policy. The warnings will be put into a folder to keep track and the PHA’s will instead monitor the person more closely, by increasing the frequency of inspections.” The last step in the process is eviction.

While tenants are reprimanded for not following the rules, there are smoking cessation programs to help them quit. McGruder said, “Smoking tobacco is especially bad for people of color because pigment keeps nicotine in the body longer.”

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