By Jackie Farwell
Bangor Daily News, October 9, 2014
Maine saves more than $1 million every year by banning smoking in public housing, according to a new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Maine is the only state that prohibits smokers from lighting up in all of its public housing units, which saves the state $1.09 million annually, according to the study published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease.
Nationally, prohibiting smoking in government-subsidized housing, including public housing, would save an estimated $497 million each year, the study found.
“We just are really excited about the study and hope that it will support the increasing change to smoke-free housing to create healthier environments for Maine residents,” said Sarah Mayberry, program coordinator for the Smoke-Free Housing Coalition of Maine.
Most of the savings in Maine – $800,000 annually – results from reduced costs to treat health problems caused by secondhand smoke. But that’s a low estimate, as the study focused primarily on heart disease and lung cancer in adults, the only medical conditions a 2006 Surgeon General’s report found proven to be caused by exposure to secondhand smoke, said Brian King, an epidemiologist with CDC’s office on smoking and health and lead author of the study that examined 2012 costs.
A 2014 Surgeon General’s report also lists stroke as a condition caused by secondhand smoke exposure, and a host of other health problems are associated with it, including other forms of cancer, emphysema and sudden infant death syndrome.
“These estimates are by most accounts conservative compared to the actual costs for health care,” King said.
The remainder of the savings results from avoiding damage from smoking-related fires and the expense of renovating units inhabited by tobacco users, such as painting smoke-stained walls and replacing burned carpeting, according to the study.
Units where smoking is allowed cost five to 10 times more to turn over, Mayberry said.
Multiunit housing complexes tend to cater to populations particularly vulnerable to the effects of secondhand smoke, such as children, senior citizens and disabled people, King said.
In Maine, nearly 20 percent of the population, or 250,000 residents, live in multiunit housing, which includes townhouses, condominiums and market-rate apartments in addition to public housing. Cigarette smoke can travel from hallways and common areas or seep through walls and vents into individual units, King said.
“Even if people do their due diligence and implement a smoke-free rule in their own home, if they live in multiunit housing, there’s still potential for secondhand smoke to come from other areas,” he said. “We know that there’s no safe level of secondhand smoke exposure.”
Nicotine and toxic contaminants can linger long after cigarette smoke dissipates, often described as “thirdhand smoke,” he said.
Most workplaces, restaurants, bars, government buildings, public event spaces and public transportation are smoke-free, and Maine banned smoking in cars carrying children in 2009. All of the state’s roughly 4,000 public housing units were smoke-free by early 2012.
Affordable housing developers must agree to prohibit smoking to qualify for low-income housing tax credits available through MaineHousing, the state’s public housing authority.
Maine would save much more money by banning smoking in all subsidized housing, such as units rented by residents using Section 8 vouchers to subsidize rent at privately owned housing units, according to the CDC study. Maine could slash its costs by $4.2 million annually by adopting that change in all 16,000 subsidized housing units, researchers found.
Some of the largest housing developers in the state have adopted smoke-free policies, but more work remains to be done, Mayberry said.
The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program encourages property owners and landlords to make their housing units smoke free, “not only for the health benefits to their tenants but to reduce their unit costs and exposure to fire dangers,” MaineHousing spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte said in an email.
The smoke-free housing outreach in Maine and nationally stresses that the policies ban smoking, not the people who choose to light up.
“These policies are smoke-free policies, not smoker-free policies,” King said. “It’s not telling smokers that they can’t live in these types of homes; it’s just that they can’t smoke in their homes and potentially expose bystanders to a known carcinogen.”
Most residents are happy living in smoke-free housing, after some initial trepidation leading up to the transition, Mayberry said. Landlords often accompany the policies with information about quitting hotlines and other tobacco cessation resources, which spurs many smokers to ditch the habit, she said.