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Local smoke-free housing advocate headed to White House conference

Pat McKone

An advocate for smoke-free public housing in Duluth and Minnesota is leaving for Washington to attend a White House meeting on a proposed national policy.

Pat McKone, regional senior director for tobacco programs and policy for the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest, was invited to attend what's being called the White House Convening on the proposed HUD smoke-free rule, she said on Monday.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development's rule would give housing authorities across the nation 18 months to implement a ban on smoking in their facilities.

HUD proposed the rule for all of the nation's 1.2 million public housing units on Nov. 12, the Washington Post reported.

Such a rule already is in effect in the six high-rises subsidized by the Duluth Housing and Rehabilitation Authority. King Manor, Grandview Manor and Midtowne Manor I and II went smoke-free on May 1, 2010, and Tri-Towers and Ramsey Manor followed a year later.

That made Duluth the first large housing authority in the state to go smoke-free, McKone said. Public housing in Minneapolis became smoke-free two years ago; St. Paul has not done so.

McKone, who was instrumental in working toward Duluth's smoke-free rule, heard from the lung association's national office that they'd submitted her name for the White House meeting, and HUD selected her to attend, she said.

HUD had looked at public housing authorities that already had gone smoke-free, McKone said. "Duluth's was used as a model."

It took about three years to implement the policy in Duluth from the first discussion to the rule being put in place, McKone said. It was an issue close to her heart, because she spent part of her childhood in public housing, and a sister who was developmentally disabled lived her adult years in public housing in the city of Virginia.

"I really wanted to work with public housing, because I feel residents of public housing don't have a voice," McKone said.

A survey of public housing residents in the region at the time showed 30 percent had either chronic heart or lung conditions.

"There's no safe level of secondhand smoke," McKone said. "We're not asking people who smoke to do anything more than step outside. If you (allow smoking), what you're really doing is putting people in life-or-death situations."

Being smoke-free also reduces the likelihood of a fire that could leave residents homeless, she said, and it means taxpayer-financed carpets and furnishings won't be smoke-damaged and will last longer.

Housing Secretary Julian Castro and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy will be among those participating in the White House meeting.

When the HUD rule was proposed, Castro said it would help improve the health of more than 760,000 children and help public housing agencies save $153 million every year in health care, repairs and preventable fires.