The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) this week announced a rule to ban smoking in all public housing nationwide. New York City has the largest public housing agency in the country. Despite smoking already being outlawed in all bars and parks, the city had never told public housing residents that they couldn't smoke in their own apartments. Now it's banned by federal decree.
Surprisingly, the ban does not apply to vaping or e-cigarettes. The new rule specifically prohibits "lit tobacco products," which pretty clearly excludes tobacco products that run on battery. But that wasn't necessarily a given. When HUD proposed the rule a year ago, it was clear that the agency was considering banning e-cigs as well. It even referenced anti-vaping research in the initial proposal, which was opened up to comment and received over a thousand submissions from health organizations and members of the public.
HUD did the standard solicitation of public input, and received over a thousand submissions from health organizations and members of the public. That included dozens of comments mentioning vaping, most of them in favor of banning it. Many of the submissions were from doctors, researchers and anti-tobacco groups. They all seemed to recite from the same script about how we don't know the full dangers of e-cigarettes, so we should forbid them out of caution.
However, HUD ultimately decided not to listen to those voices. Instead, it was more persuaded by the mere five (5) comments it received in favor of keeping vaping legal in housing projects. And a couple of those weren't very formal submissions. One is just a long diatribe about how the whole proposal is meant to persecute the poor. Although the author makes good points about how it's condescending and will lead to more arrests, it's not the kind of argument the federal government tends to persuasive.
Another interesting comment comes from Allan Marshall, a resident of public housing. Marshall's main focus is a complaining that you can't smoke anywhere nowadays. He also claims to speak for many of his neighbors who don't have the time and/or access to a computer to submit a comment themselves. Of all the comments from public housing residents (rather than health orgs, issue advocates or concerned citizens), Marshall's was the only one to mention vaping.
The most scientific pro-vaping comment came from Sally Satel, M.D., and Alan D. Viard, Ph.D. of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a free market think tank. Satel and Viard provide a comprehensive argument that prohibiting e-cigs would make the ban on cigarettes harder to implement. The theory is that tobacco vaporizers are a low-cost alternative to smoking, as opposed to more expensive options like nicotine gums and patches. The researchers also provide a clear-eyed review of the evidence on the health impacts of vapes and e-cigs. Satel and Viard are very level-headed and rational, weighing the risks and benefits. Ultimately they conclude that the potential dangers are minor compared to how much it could help residents who had to adjust to living in a non-smoking building.
However, a ban on vaping in public housing is still a possibility. HUD officials have indicated that it could happen sometime in the future. And there's the fact that starting in January, Donald Trump will be in charge of the federal government. He's named Dr. Ben Carson as his HUD secretary, which will be...interesting. The smoking ban isn't scheduled to take effect for 18 months, and it's hard to tell whether the Trump administration will be vape-friendly. There's really no way to tell what kind of shape a federal agency like HUD will even be in by 2018. But for now at least, the people of the projects are free to vape' em if they got' em.