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Philadelphia’s Smoke-Free Housing Policy Is Proving Effective

A new study suggests a smoke-free policy has been effective in cleaning the air among Philadelphia’s public-housing communities.
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Public-housing residents in Philadelphia are getting a breath of fresh air: A new study presents evidence that a 2015 policy by the Philadelphia Housing Authority has led to lowered levels of second-hand smoke in the city’s public housing communities.

“We can with confidence say that the policy can explain at least part of our findings,” says lead researcher Ann Klassen, a professor at Drexel University. “We really can’t think of another plausible explanation.”

The risks of second-hand smoke exposure are well documented: Each year about 3,000 lung-cancer deaths in the United States are a result of second-hand smoke exposure. Following a suggestion by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2009, housing authorities across the U.S. have been issuing smoking bans in shared public-housing spaces. But these bans haven’t addressed smoking in the homes of public-housing residents, and that’s a real issue for public health, as cigarette smoke has been shown to drift throughout a public-housing community.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority took this policy a step further, and, in 2015, banned smoking across public-housing communities, affecting shared spaces and private residences.

To determine the effectiveness of the 2015 policy, Klassen and her team at Drexel conducted a series of surveys and nicotine monitorings both before and after the smoke-free policy implementation.

“The culture of tobacco use in the communities has begun to shift in a positive direction.”

Klassen and her team placed nicotine monitors in 132 common areas across various public-housing communities in Philadelphia in 2013 and 2014, and then again in 2016, after the policy went into effect. Monitors were placed in shared public spaces such as laundry rooms, lounges, hallways, and entryways for seven to 14 days. After retrieval each year, monitors were assessed for second-hand smoke by a laboratory at John Hopkins University.

Looking at data from 2013, before Philadelphia issued its all-encompassing smoking ban policy, Klassen and her colleagues show that as much as two micrograms of nicotine per cubic meter of air — the equivalent of six to 10 cigarettes — was detected in public-housing common areas. This high exposure endangers populations that rely on public housing, such as low-income families, the elderly, and persons with disabilities.

Turning to data from 2016, their findings indicate that the amount of detected nicotine in shared public spaces was reduced by almost half after the ban was enacted.

In 2013, they found an average of 0.44 micrograms of nicotine per cubic meter in public-housing community air; one year after the policy, in 2016, that number dropped to 0.23 micrograms.

“The culture of tobacco use in the communities has begun to shift in a positive direction because there’s so much less second-hand smoke in the air, so the number of people who violate the rules and smoke in the hallways and laundry rooms has gone down,” Klassen says.

Researchers find this especially promising given the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s announcement last year that it will require public-housing authorities across the U.S. to implement similar smoke-free policies by 2018, banning smoking in both shared and private spaces.

Smokers seem to favor this policy too. It appears public-housing residents will be able to breathe a deep, clear sigh of relief.