A proposed federal rule would outlaw smoking in public housing, setting up a new debate about the cost of public health and the role of government.
A proposed federal rule would outlaw smoking in public housing, setting up a new debate about the cost of public health and the role of government. - 
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A proposed federal rule would outlaw smoking in public housing, setting up a new debate about the cost of public health and the role of government.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development unveiled the proposed rule Thursday. It would prohibit smoking in housing units, as well as common areas or within 25 feet of buildings.

The federal government has been encouraging public housing agencies to ban smoking since 2009; more than 600 agencies have already prohibited it voluntarily.

HUD has identified three main benefits to the ban: eliminating exposure to second-hand smoke, reducing maintenance and damage to public housing units and reducing potential fire hazards.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked into possible cost savings from such a move this last year and found that a ban in all subsidized housing across the country could save almost $500 million annually, about two thirds of which would come from healthcare savings related to second-hand smoke.

"We have a responsibility to protect public housing residents from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, especially the elderly and children who suffer from asthma and other respiratory diseases," HUD Secretary Julián Castro said in a press release.

“It’s tricky,” said Ethan Handelman, vice president for policy and advocacy with the National Housing Conference. “Proposing to ban smoking in all public housing is a big, top-down approach.”

While the move will have health benefits, Handelman also noted it’s hard to quit smoking, even for those who want to.

“If you live somewhere and are told you can’t smoke in your home anymore, that’s going to be a major challenge,” he said.

Moreover, it may be difficult for housing agencies to enforce the ban.

The proposed rule will be open for public comment for 60 days. If finalized, agencies would have a year and half to implement the rule in their developments. It could eventually affect almost a million households.

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Follow Tracey Samuelson at @tdsamuelson