On Wednesday, a different Castro was in the news: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro decreed that all 3,100 local Public Housing Agencies must implement “smoke-free” policies for all indoor dwellings within the next 18 months. In essence, by late 2018, smoking will be banned inside any of the nation’s 940,000 public housing units.

Pitched primarily as a means to protect nonsmoking tenants from the environmental harms of so-called “secondhand” smoke, these sweeping tenant regulations included the striking admission that research to date on [electronic cigarettes] is still developing and lacks clear consensus, in contrast with research on the effects of cigarettes and other tobacco products.”

With that sentence, HUD distinguished between traditional combustible cigarettes and e-cigarettes, banning the former and—for the time being, at least—allowing the latter. That should be applauded as the only reasonable policy. If electronic cigarettes are significantly less harmful to both users and bystanders than combustible ones—and all research to date indicates they are—classifying both products together would make little sense from a public health standpoint.

Alas, that hasn’t stopped the Food and Drug Administration from bizarrely deeming electronic cigarettes a “tobacco” product, even though they contain no tobacco. In fact, current FDA policy is even more punitive toward e-cigarettes than it is toward traditional cigarettes. If Congress or the new administration doesn’t take action to roll back the deeming rules, the overwhelming majority of e-cigs might have to be pulled from the market.

Bearing that in mind, it’s useful to take the HUD news with a grain of salt (before that substance is banned next). In particular, some of the fine print in the rule could be a harbinger of things to come. For instance, the rule stipulates that public housing agencies “may exercise their discretion to include a prohibition on [electronic cigarettes] in their individual smoke-free policies if they deem such a prohibition beneficial.” What counts as beneficial is not defined, so one ought to feel at liberty to substitute this word with “whim” or “fancy.”

HUD also allows that it could revise its prohibition to include e-cigarettes if evidence shows that doing so “will, for example, result in significant maintenance savings.” This marks another opaque metric that, if applied broadly and strictly, could lead to some rather hilarious unintended consequences.

The tobacco industry long has been among the easiest policy targets for technocrats wishing to appear useful. Keep slapping prohibitions on all products tied to the industry in the name of health and well-being and all is well in the land. Except that when it comes to nicotine vapor products, which millions of smokers have used and are using to cease or significantly cut down their consumption of far more harmful tobacco cigarettes, the witch hunt sets an exceedingly dangerous, if all too predictable precedent. Namely, in the absence of defined standards, the government will continue to overregulate any products popularly viewed as contrary to the public good.

Electronic cigarettes are 95 percent safer than their combustible cousins. If this threshold is still unacceptable, it does not take the imagination of a HUD secretary to anticipate what’s in store for a few of the other staples lying around in your cupboards and around the house.

Image by Joel Raskin

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