Our Opinion: Housing authority should snuff out ban on smokeless tobacco

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The Wilson Housing Authority is using public health as a pretense to limit personal freedom.

A federal mandate requires public housing communities to go smoke-free next year, but local officials took it several steps further — banning e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco along with lit tobacco products like cigarettes, cigars, hookahs and pipes.

Beginning Jan. 1, the Wilson Housing Authority will ban the use of tobacco and vaping products in all of its homes and offices. The agency also will prevent tobacco use within 25 feet of its buildings. Violators will receive two written warnings, get a $50 fine the third time they’re caught and be thrown out the fourth time, according to a lease addendum residents were required to sign.

The restrictions stem, in part, from a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development policy designated as 24 CFR Parts 965 and 966 in the Code of Federal Regulations. HUD rules instruct public housing agencies to go smoke-free by July 31, 2018.

HUD considered and rejected blanket bans on smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes, adopting a policy narrowly tailored to prevent secondhand smoke exposure, reduce the risk of residential fires and reduce maintenance costs, since cigarette smoke can stain walls and carpets.

Local officials adopted more stringent rules on their own. As far as we can tell, the rationale has more to do with paternalism than environmental health.

“Smoking and tobacco use is one of the most preventable causes of disease,” Wilson County Health Director Teresa Ellen told the Times. “We are pleased to be working together to make Wilson a healthier place to live, work and play.”

We’re all for reducing the rates of smoking and tobacco use, but that can be achieved through education rather than coercion. Why reach for the stick of heavy-handed regulation when the carrot of tobacco cessation support may work just as well?

Ellen noted that e-cigarette vapor can contain harmful substances, citing a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. But vaping is also less risky than smoking and is often a graduated step down that helps smokers quit. The acronym for electronic nicotine delivery systems — ENDS — wasn’t an accident.

Smokeless tobacco, too, can be part of a harm reduction strategy to wean lifelong smokers off cigarettes. Dip, chew and snuff all pose serious health risks, but the CDC acknowledges they are less harmful than smoking.

Wilson Housing Authority CEO Kelly Vick said his agency wanted to treat all tobacco products the same. “I just thought we should make it easy on everyone to understand,” he said. But that tin of snuff or pouch of chew poses zero risk to non-users, so environmental health simply isn’t a factor. You never hear about secondhand spit.

Banning smokeless nicotine products is a form of social engineering designed to cajole grown adults into living healthier lives by restricting their choices. That’s not a proper role for government and is overreach on the Wilson Housing Authority’s part, no matter how well-intentioned it may be.

Writing for the libertarian Reason Magazine in 2015, Nick Gillespie explained that such bans should offend conservatives for their nanny-state intrusions into the home and perturb progressives for their discriminatory effect on low-income residents who can’t afford market-rate apartments. The poor are being forced to quit a legal, if harmful, personal habit or risk being tossed out on the street. How’s that for social justice?

“(T)he idea that the state can or should condition the receipt of benefits on the avoidance of specific legal behaviors should be anathema,” Gillespie wrote.

The Wilson Housing Authority is sliding down a slippery slope. If smokeless tobacco can be banished merely because it’s unhealthy, why not ban alcohol, sugary drinks and fatty foods from public housing?

Vick tells us it’s unlikely from a practical perspective that the rules will be enforced against those who dip or chew tobacco in the privacy and seclusion of their homes. If that’s true, why include those products in the ban at all?

Obscure, little-used rules give officials too much leeway for selective enforcement. Maybe most smokeless tobacco users fly under the radar, but the policy could provide a convenient excuse to get rid of tenants who pester property managers with one too many maintenance request.

Policing personal behavior surely doesn’t make communities more harmonious. After these rules take effect, some tenants may resort to snitching on their neighbors, sowing distrust and creating a tattletale culture. Treating adults like children may inspire them to act accordingly.

Going smoke-free was a HUD mandate, but where e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco are concerned, the Wilson Housing Authority ought to butt out.