KC could show nation how to make public housing smoke-free

05/07/2014 5:39 PM

05/07/2014 11:06 PM

Here’s one reason why the Kansas City Housing Authority can order its residents to stop smoking. Leverage.

Don’t want to stop smoking, ma’am? Well, there are plenty of others eager to take your place in public housing, and they are not puffing away their health.

That, put a little coldly, is part of the reality within the new nonsmoking rule for publicly owned units, including common areas. In the last five years, the waiting lists for public housing and Section 8 vouchers have increased 21/2-fold. There were 8,827 people waiting for a spot in public housing and 16,907 waiting for a Section 8 voucher as of February 2013.

With a 98 percent occupancy rate, the waits are still that high, although the authority isn’t itching to kick anyone out, said Donovan Mouton, chairman of the authority board. Because many applicants have children, the wait list represents about 40,000 people.

No one should be naive about how difficult this will be to achieve. Nicotine is more addictive than heroin. There is no magic formula for how long it takes to quit. Every individual is different. Forty percent of the authority residents smoke, compared to about 28 percent among the general public.

Compliance by July 1, as initially outlined, is unreasonable, said physician Donald A. Potts, a University of Missouri-Kansas City associate professor of medicine and a tobacco treatment specialist. A six-month extension is available and will be needed by many residents.

For the few smokers who manage to go cold turkey, only about 4 percent are still not smoking within six months, Potts said. The most successful smoking cessation programs can be costly — combining counseling, a reduction in nicotine dosage over time and nicotine replacement therapy, Potts said.

Mouton has spoken with Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center about collaborating on smoking-cessation programs, applying for grant money. The city Health Department is also on board.

A great opportunity exists here for Kansas City. What happens next could become a national model. The federal government is pushing for housing authorities to go smoke-free, largely for health reasons. It makes sense, especially given that half of the local residents are children who suffer under secondhand smoke.

Potts has a view that is likely shared by many when they consider the rents they are subsidizing: “I really have a problem with my tax money helping people poison other people.”

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