The parting gift of the Obama Department of Housing and Urban Development to residents of public housing is air. Not exactly clean air, but air free of cigarette smoke. Those who find smoking repugnant will applaud, noting that no one should be forced to smell the acrid odor of another person’s foul and cancerous habit. That smoking is dangerous is beyond question, though the effects of second hand smoke may be over-hyped, even if for good intentions.
But has the regulation of smoking now come to a place too close to home? For residents of public housing, the existence of which is a recognition that even those who can’t afford a brownstone on Sutton Place ought to have a roof over their heads, the nannies who know what’s best for them are now in their home to dictate acceptable conduct within their own home.
The New York Times Room for Debate, in one of the most New York-ish, not to mention Times-ish, debates ever, questions whether banning conduct within a person’s home is “heavy handed.” It was a two-person debate, both of whom began with serious Gertruding. Bronx NYC councilman Ritchie Torres supports the move.
When I first heard about the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s proposal for a smoking ban in public housing a few months ago, I recoiled in disgust. At a time when the New York City Housing Authority is sinking deeper and deeper into a state of disrepair, why, I thought to myself, would the federal government spend even a second on a small-bore smoking ban, knowing, as it surely must, that public housing is an endangered species with far more pressing needs.
How a ban on smoking comes at the expense of housing stock in disrepair is a mystery. While there are certainly bigger issues to be addressed, it’s not as if they’re only allowed to deal with one thing an election cycle.
But then came a change of heart. The numbers revealing the human cost of tobacco were too sobering to be taken lightly. Once the initial gut reaction had receded, I thought deeply about and came to be persuaded by the public health justification for a smoking ban.
That Torres had to think deeply to realize that smoking was a generic problem is surprising. But what did that mean for residents of public housing?
[F]ewer smokers would mean more people with longer and better lives. If lengthening and improving lives is not a worthwhile cause, then I am not sure what is.
Nowhere does he demonstrate a recognition of the imposition of health preferences on residents. He does acknowledge that policing the ban would be difficult, dismissing it as still resulting in fewer smokers, but without thought of creating a new reason to bring police into people’s homes, people’s buildings. And more police using their authority to stop people from doing what they want to do in their own homes presents a public health problem of its own, as Akai Gurley found out.
In response, Tony Marcano, flack for the Southern California ACLU, does his own dance.
I hate smoking. Among all the terrible things we do to our bodies — injecting narcotics, ingesting toxic pills and alcohol, consuming too much sugar and salt — there’s little worse than sucking poison into your lungs.
It would follow, then, that I would approve of the coming ban on smoking in public housing announced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But I don’t. I can’t reconcile a government ban on a legal product, even noxious tobacco, in the privacy of one’s own home.
Would it follow? Not if one applied logic, but then, this is appearing in the Times, so Marcano was wise to make such a rash assumption.
So no surprise that I’m okay with vigorous campaigns to discourage smoking. Those graphic ads with images of jaws eaten away by cancer or smokers breathing through tracheostomy tubes? All for them. Heavy taxes on tobacco? Absolutely. Indeed, I support smoking bans in common areas, and H.U.D.’s plan to offer smoking-cessation aids and counseling to public housing residents.
But I draw the line at the threshold to their apartments, and I believe public housing residents will too.
Why? Well, he never actually offers an argument, just Gertruding plus a conclusion.
By all means, visit the homes of your neighbors, friends and families to warn them away from the scourge of smoking. But don’t let the government into their homes to do it for you.
There are a great many things we do to ourselves that are harmful, some more so than others, some not harmful despite studies that first show awfulness, and are later debunked as crap, but the fear lingers forever. Comparing smoking with sodium intake may be unfair. Obesity, not so much. Narcotics, sure, but they’re criminalized, even as weed is being decriminalized. But then, smoking pot in public housing won’t be allowed either, meaning it may be lawful but better to do it in public parks where the little children play.
Both debaters share two things: the righteousness of the cause and a belief in the propriety of government regulating people’s lives for their own good. Marcano differs only by saying it should stop at the threshold. Neither questions whether government regulation “for your own good” is the right way to address risky behaviors.
There are a great many things human beings do that are arguably dangerous, and there is a sound argument that, when consequences occur, society pays a price to deal with it, whether, inter alia, in health care costs or support for children whose parents can’t provide for them. As Torres asserts, the consequences of cancer can be devastating.
But once the nannies of government stick their nose into risky behaviors, regulating lives to what they deem good choices (like banning sugary beverages to combat the childhood obesity epidemic), a threshold is crossed as well. Are we entitled to make choices that the nannies would prefer we not make? Is criminalizing behaviors that bureaucrats deem unhealthy where government belongs? If not, are the poor less worthy of freedom of choice because their homes are more easily regulated?
While the argument can be made that smoking is so deleterious to health that it falls into a category of its own, and doesn’t put regulators on the slippery slope to mandating food choices for chubby children, has experience shown that the government, once on that slope, won’t pursue it as far as it can? And well-intended people won’t applaud its doing so, because they believe with religious certainty that their life choices should be imposed on everyone?
And then, the lurking question remains of whether the cops in the hallway, smelling smoke emanating from an apartment, will have exigent circumstances to burst in and enforce the ban? Then, fearful for their lives as a surprised resident reaches to snuff out his butt in a furtive gesture, spraying the living room with bullets for the sake of the residents’ well-being? In the name of public health, is it worthy of execution?