Let's be realistic: Smoking has a cost, but so do evictions.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

'Ban Smoking' Means 'Evict Defiant Smokers'

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Smokers in public housing had better take a few last drags. The federal government is proposing to ban smoking in public housing -- not just in public areas like lobbies, but also in the apartments themselves. Fabulous cost savings are promised (repaint less often! spend less on health care!). But when you drill down into the much-cited paper offered in support, the methods look far too fuzzy to rely upon. So it's hard to tell how much money we'll really save.

The most obvious question is whether and how this ban will be enforced. Fabulous cost savings are not going to materialize if you just ban smoking and the smokers merrily keep puffing away in their apartments. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of good evidence on the results of these bans, some of which have already been implemented at the local level. The best I could come up with was a short-term study from Portland, which found that five months after the implementation of a ban, almost two-thirds of the residents were simply not complying.

Another study shows better results for indoor smoking, but fewer than half of the smokers even reported reducing their cigarette consumption, and non-smokers still reported significant weekly exposure to second-hand smoke. (And of course, you have to worry that people under threat of eviction may exaggeration the extent of their compliance with the new rules).

The footnotes to the CDC study show a heavy reliance on data from multi-unit housing -- which is to say, any sort of apartment building, not just public housing. But of course, public housing is a little different from your average apartment tower. The tenants do not have a lot of extra cash to, say, pay a fine. Or to negotiate an eviction, which is ultimately the only penalty that the housing authority can levy for someone who persistently violates the rules.

And there’s the rub: Are we really going to evict people from public housing for smoking in their apartments? We’re talking about people who definitionally do not have a lot of financial resources: single parents, the elderly, the disabled. Where, exactly, are they going to go on short notice?

I’m not even making a moral argument about whether we should do this. I have an opinion about that too, but it’s irrelevant. The question is whether we are going to do this. As law-and-order hawks frequently forget, the problem with imposing draconian punishment is that their deterrent effect ends up considerably blunted by the natural reluctance of authorities to impose very harsh punishments on violators who are mostly harming themselves. Housing authorities already show reluctance to evict people who consistently fail to pay their rent. How many are going to be willing to regularly toss families out on the street because Mom smokes in the bathroom?

And indeed, HUD Secretary Julian Castro, quoted in the Times, is reluctant to endorse evictions for tenants who smoke.

The prohibition would be included in tenant leases, and violations would be treated like other nuisance violations, which are usually reported by neighbors or employees and are not meant to result in evictions, Mr. Castro said.

“The purpose is to go smoke-free and to have healthier communities,” he said. “My hope is that housing authorities would work with residents to prepare them for this change so that any kind of punitive measures like evictions are avoided at all costs.”

This is a lovely sentiment, but surely he doesn’t think that every public housing tenant -- about a quarter of whom smoked in one survey by the New York public housing authority -- is going to comply with the new rules. If you don’t evict the violators, then over time, the initially compliant smokers will realize there’s no penalty and will return to smoking in their apartments, so that the net effect of this ban will mostly be more paperwork for the managers of the housing projects.

But if you do evict the defiant smokers, what happens next? I suspect that a lot of the projected cost savings get eaten up when the families end up in the city’s shelter system, or the disabled folks end up in hospitals. Homelessness is also not known for its fabulous health benefits.

If public housing had a better array of tools to deal with noncompliant tenants, this might be less of a problem. But they ultimately have one crude tool: eviction. And it’s hard to evict people from a facility created specifically to house people who don’t have anywhere else to go.

  1. I won’t bore you with too many details, but to take just one glaring problem, the cost benefits are calculated gross, rather than net. They estimate cost savings from diseases that might be caused by secondhand smoke, but don't net out whatever else those people might have died from. (Overall, Kip Viscusi has estimated that smoking saves society money. Which is not to say the savings are worth it.) They estimate the benefits from less renovation and fewer fires, but do not include the cost of implementing the ban. They also don’t offer any costs that might be incurred by making non-compliant tenants suddenly homeless. Homelessness is, of course, extremely costly for both the victim and the local government. The report airily dismisses the horrors of eviction with a cheery note that this draconian threat might help reduce disparities in smoking rates between rich and poor. You know, if the poor have to choose between smoking while homeless or not smoking at home.

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