Friday, December 1, 2023


City councillor E. Denise Simmons has filed a second order requesting a slowdown in a public housing smoking ban.

City councillor E. Denise Simmons has filed a second order requesting a slowdown in a public housing smoking ban.

For the second time in eight months, city councillors want the Cambridge Housing Authority to delay its controversial ban on smoking in public housing developments, this time citing a failed state grant application from the Cambridge Health Alliance that would have provided counseling and other resources to help residents give up cigarettes.

The housing agency said it doesn’t rely on the Alliance for cessation efforts. But on Monday the council voted 8-0 to ask the agency to postpone the Aug. 1 ban “until such time as the organization can identify a new source of funding” for needed smoking cessation programs. The order called for copies of the resolution to be sent to agency Executive Director Gregory Russ and commissioners, but also referred the resolution to the council’s Housing Committee.

Last Oct. 7 the council also voiced reservations about the smoking ban, approving a resolution asking the agency to continue discussing the ban with residents. The council order noted that “it seems punitive” to bar public housing residents from smoking in their homes, while residents “who have the means to live in private housing” don’t have such restrictions.

The housing agency had approved the policy after a survey and a number of public hearings for residents and after softening some elements of the ban, although opponents said the consultation process had been flawed. The agency did not reopen discussions as the order requested.

The policy bars smoking inside tenants’ apartments, in buildings and outdoors except for designated smoking areas. It was approved despite vociferous opposition from some tenants, although a survey showed that a large majority of residents supported it.

Councillor E. Denise Simmons sponsored both council resolutions. Her latest order said the agency had planned to use money from the Cambridge Health Alliance grant for smoking cessation, smoking prevention and other health services for its residents. “It is unknown to what degree” the Alliance’s failure to win the state grant will affect smoking cessation resources for public housing tenants, the resolution said.

Cessation efforts

As planned, smoking cessation experts from the Cambridge Health Alliance have held meetings for residents at seven public housing developments this month and will hold an eighth meeting June 2. The sessions, where residents can ask questions, described strategies and resources for quitting and explained nicotine addiction and the benefits of stopping smoking. Many insurers, including MassHealth, cover medication and counseling, according to Lisa Montuori-Trimble, director of health promotion and community outreach at the Alliance.

The Alliance also offers tobacco treatment to its own patients, some of whom live in public housing, and operates a telephone line for smokers trying to quit at (617) 591-6122, available to anyone, spokesman David Cecere said.

The state grant would have provided more help to the agency, Cecere said. The health care system will try to find “creative ways to do so with our limited tobacco treatment staff resources” and plans to meet “soon to discuss next steps” with the agency, he said.

A task force of public housing residents and managers that developed the smoking ban recommended that the agency provide counseling to residents who wanted to stop smoking.  “We have met with a counselor and are confident that we’ll have counseling in place shortly,” said James Comer, director of operations at the agency. “Our plan is not reliant on resources from the Cambridge Health Alliance, although they have been a good partner throughout the process.”

The state grants went to community organizations to develop broad public health programs in the areas of asthma, tobacco, high blood pressure and falls by the elderly. Applicants were to enlist partners in their communities.

The agency was to be a partner to the Health Alliance, which would work on smoking cessation, mental health and falls prevention with grant funds, Comer said. He said the public housing agency supported the Alliance’s grant application “with the understanding that [the Alliance] would bring these services to our residents.”

“The mental health training and fall prevention were the Alliance’s thoughts about needed services, not part of our plan, although we would certainly have welcomed them,” Comer said.  “It was our intention to provide [smoking] cessation assistance regardless, with the grant merely one option for doing so.”

Previous story: Housing Authority starts preparing residents for Aug. 1 smoking ban