Announced today that the Department of Housing and Urban Development will propose a rule banning any and all smoking in public housing nationwide. This would include in apartments and public/common areas.
Smoking is already prohibited in the lobbies and hallways of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). NYCHA housing includes 400,000 people in about 178,000 apartments throughout the city.
- There is ample evidence that a smoking ban would save $millions in healthcare costs, and building maintenance.
- There is no doubt that most non-smokers in public housing would support this new restriction.
- And it’s hard to argue that there’s any good reason for people to be smoking period. We in public health pronounce the new regulations as a victory – a step forward.
But there is a profound rub.
Once again we’re targeting and regulating the lives of those we most easily can – the poor. To live in public housing, or receive Medicaid assistance, or food stamps – to participate in the US social welfare system – you surrender just about all your private information – your privacy.
And each surrender is a loss of sense of self – dignity.
By example, I recall speaking to a group of East Harlem residents about privacy and security of health information they may transmit on their mobile phones. As often happens doing ethnography one of the insights I took away, what Goffman calls “intimacy trophies”, was that these folks clearly saw that “privacy” was a privilege of “the haves”. They had given up all their personal and family information to get government assistance.
When one man proclaimed that the mobile phone he had as part of his assistance program was used by the government to “track” him – the others nodded – this was certainly within the realm of the real and possible to them.
So, yes, a smoking ban in public housing will likely save lives and dollars.
But is it good public health?
Erving Goffman. 1956. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.