Why prohibiting smoking in public housing apartments is a bad idea

by Stephen Helfer — opinion

1) It is a coercive and intrusive. Public housing tenants’ lives are already highly regulated and to deny them the right to determine the smoking policy in their homes invades their privacy. Officials should defend civil rights not violate them.

2) Housing officials say they will evict tenants who do not comply. Evicting residents will make many of them homeless. If they have children, it will make them homeless too. Officials should not evict smokers and their families.

3) Housing officials are demanding that tenants report neighbors who do not comply. Informing on neighbors destroys the trust on which society depends. Housing officials should encourage trust, not demand that residents anonymously inform on each other for smoking a cigarette in their own homes.

4) Many public housing residents are single mothers. Forcing them to go outside at night to smoke will put them at risk of assault. If they take their children, the children will be in danger too. If a mother leaves a child at home, she will be accused of neglect. Housing officials should not put women in danger.  

5) According to the organization, Healthy Public Housing, public housing is contaminated with cockroach and mouse allergens, which worsen asthma. Because public housing is in poor repair and underfunded, housing officials ignore important problems. Smokers should not be scapegoated because problems like pest-infestation, poor maintenance, and rampant crime are difficult to solve.

6) While secondhand smoke, along with pollen, dust, pest infestation, and other factors can trigger asthma attacks, it does not cause asthma. In the last 30 years, as smoking rates secondhand smoke exposure have declined, asthma rates have skyrocketed. Housing authorities should not blame smokers for the high rates of asthma in public housing when smoking is not the cause.

7) Many, but not all studies have shown that living in the same home as a smoker for many decades can increase health risks, but there are no studies showing that living next door to a smoker poses any danger. Housing officials should not claim there is a risk when they have no scientific evidence. to support such a claim.

8) The research of Sir Michael Marmot, chairman of the UN Committee on the Social Determinants of Health, demonstrates that denying people control over their lives undermines their health more than smoking, or obesity. Housing officials should not deny residents the right to determine the smoking policy in their own homes, because in addition to invading their privacy, it could hurt their health.


Boston Housing Authority FY11 Annual Plan and Supporting Documents, Proposed Non-Smoking Policy and Non-Smoking Lease Addendum, (BHA website).
“Not in here you don’t...,” Share Change News, 3/25-4/7/10.
Healthy Public Housing (website)
“Breathing Easier in Boston,” Boston Globe, 10/16/06.
“Unnatural Causes,” page 3, interview with Sir Michael Marmot, airing on PBS Television.
For more information, please contact:

Stephen Helfer (617) 852-8121


Stephen Helfer is a smoker's rights activist and longtime Cambridge resident. He is not a member of ACT.