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The US plans to ban smoking in public housing — but will it work?

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How will it be enforced?

Evidence of smoking at Queensbridge Houses, a public housing development in Queens, New York

April Simpson has been living in the Queensbridge Houses, a public housing development in Queens, New York, her whole life. “From day one. I was born here,” she says, proudly.

When she walks among the iconic six-story, red-brick buildings, passersby say hi to her and kiss her on the cheek. Everyone seems to know her. Simpson, a charismatic 54-year-old with buzzed short hair and a broad smile, is the Queensbridge tenants’ association president. She’s also a smoker. But come 2017, under a new federal rule, she won’t be allowed to light up one of her Newport cigarettes inside the housing development where she lives.

Simpson is in favor of the smoking ban, but she also thinks it will be “extremely hard” to enforce. “You just can’t say, ‘You can’t smoke anymore’ to a person who’s been smoking for 20 years or even 10 years,” she says. “It’s like putting a lollipop in front of child and saying, ‘You can’t have it’ without giving them alternatives.”

April Simpson, a resident of the Queensbridge Houses, is trying to quit smoking

It’s not clear yet what those alternatives will be. The nationwide smoking ban was announced last month by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It will go into effect starting in the new year, but local housing authorities will have a year and a half to implement smoke-free policies. For now, public housing agencies around the country are still trying to figure out how to enforce the ban, including how to punish violators.

The reasons for the ban, which will affect more than 940,000 households, are obvious: smoking increases the risks of stroke, heart disease, and lung cancer, as well as other types of cancers almost anywhere in your body. Second-hand smoke can be just as bad, especially for children, who get exposed to higher risks of asthma attacks, respiratory infections, and ear infections. But smoking doesn’t stop at the doorway: studies have shown that children who live in smoke-free apartments with neighbors who smoke get exposed to tobacco chemicals. The US Surgeon General also concluded in 2006 that “separating smokers from nonsmokers, cleaning the air, and ventilating buildings cannot eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke.” The only way to do it is by banning indoor smoking altogether. (Smoking indoor also increases the risk of fires, and it costs housing authorities millions of dollars in repairs, renovations, and property damage.)

"Every child deserves to grow up in a safe, healthy home free from harmful second-hand cigarette smoke," HUD Secretary Julián Castro said when the ban was announced. "HUD's smoke-free rule is a reflection of our commitment to using housing as a platform to create healthy communities."

The public housing development Queensbridge Houses in Queens, New York, is the city’s largest

Many public housing residents are in favor of the ban. During a period of public comment, the HUD received more than a 1,000 letters from authorities and tenants. Many of them applauded the smoke-free policy for promoting healthier environments in public housing. “If they want to smoke it is their business, but I do not want smoke/smell their cigarettes,” Andreza Campbell, a 40-year-old resident of Ravenswood, another public housing development in Queens, New York, wrote in an email to The Verge. “I hate cigarettes because it makes me have crises of sinusitis.”

But not everyone is on board. Some see the smoking ban as an overreach on the government’s part. “It is an infringement of the peoples [sic] civil liberties,” one public housing resident in Bay City, Michigan, wrote in a letter to the HUD. “What about the tenants who are wheelchair bound. Is government to tell them they cannot smoke in their own house? That is clearly discrimination.”

The rule prohibits residents from smoking inside their apartments, in hallways and other indoor public areas, as well as outdoors within 25 feet of housing and office buildings. It covers cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and hookahs, but not electronic cigarettes. That’s because research on e-cigs “lacks clear consensus” on health effects, and there’s little evidence that e-cigs increase the risks of fire, a HUD spokesperson wrote in an email to The Verge.

Since 2009, the HUD has been encouraging public housing agencies to go smoke-free. And some housing developments have already chosen to ban smoking. They provide a model of how the nationwide smoking ban could be enforced. In Miami-Dade County, Florida, for example, where some of the privately owned public housing units ban smoking, violators get two warnings and possibly a fine of up to $50, says Michael Liu, the director of the Miami-Dade County Public Housing and Community Development Department. The third time they’re caught, they get a more formal notice that could lead to eviction if the tenant keeps smoking. However, no one has ever been evicted due to the smoking ban, Liu says, and residents seem to comply without problems. “Our policy is very forgiving,” Liu says.

In San Francisco, where smoking leases began to be phased out in 2010, tenants who smoke are sent a warning letter. But there’s no one-size-fits-all punishment — instead, violators are dealt with individually, says Rose Marie Dennis, a public information officer at the San Francisco Housing Authority. And tenants have responded well to the smoke-free policies, she says.

At Queensbridge Houses, in New York, Simpson fears implementing the ban won’t be as easy. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) — the largest housing agency in the US with more than 400,000 residents — already prohibits smoking in the buildings’ hallways and common areas. But residents smoke indoors anyway, especially when it’s cold out, and the smoke-free policies aren’t enforced, Simpson says. Big signs inside every Queensbridge building say that violators could receive “penalties” and even be evicted. “What’s going to be the reprimand?” Simpson says. “If you get caught smoking in your apartment, your lease is going to be terminated and you’re gonna be put out into the street over a cigarette?”

The HUD says that’s not how the ban should be enforced. “The last thing that we want are evictions,” a HUD spokesperson wrote in an email to The Verge. “We encourage [public housing authorities] to work with residents so it doesn’t get to that point.”

A sign inside each building at Queensbridge Houses says residents can’t smoke in common areas — subject to penalties or eviction
Alessandra Potenza / The Verge

But Simpson says the ban will be hard to enforce if residents won’t be given the resources necessary to quit smoking — like free access to smoking cessation groups, counseling, and smoking cessation aids like nicotine patches and gums. “Cigarette smoking is an addiction,” she says. “You can’t tell people to stop smoking without giving them the resources to quit smoking.”

NYCHA has led smoking cessation groups at four developments around the city so far, and says it plans to provide additional smoking cessation programs when the ban goes into place. “Partnerships to provide support to smokers who want to quit will definitely be part of the planning and implementation of the rule,” a NYCHA spokesperson wrote in an email to The Verge.

Other public housing authorities with smoke-free policies say that they use education, counseling, and smoking cessation to help residents quit. Liu, at the Miami-Dade County Public Housing, says that residents who violate smoking bans are referred to the state Department of Health for help to quit. “It could be challenging, but if we approach it in the spirit of wanting to help and providing material to help educate,” he says, the smoking ban “will ultimately be successful.”

Simpson, on her part, hopes it will be. She has leukemia and her doctors have told her to quit smoking. She goes to a smoking cessation group run by New York Presbyterian Hospital and she’s down to eight or nine cigarettes a day from 16. Maybe not being able to smoke in her apartment next year will help. “I don’t want to continue to smoke; I know it’s bad for my health,” she says. “I’m not trying to stop smoking because HUD put this in place. I wanna see my grandchildren graduate. I wanna be at my granddaughters’ weddings when they get married one day.”

Update December 19th, 2016 12:32PM ET: The story has been updated to include a comment from the New York City Housing Authority.

Photography by Alessandra Potenza / The Verge