Editorial: Balance student and smoker rights

Our view: The University should be commended for protecting student health but must find ways to accomodate smokers.

The University recently headed a Residence Hall Association suggestion to ban cigarette smoking in all GW residence halls, effective at the beginning of the next academic year. Citing both facility management and student life issues, both the University and the RHA should be commended for taking steps to alleviate a significant public health concern on campus. Lost in much of the praise for the decision, however is that students – who are required to rent rooms, sometimes at rates higher than the market would dictate – are being denied their rights as tenants under this arrangement.

In all circumstances, this page – concurring with the opinions of many cities and courts – supports the collective rights of the public to be protected from a public health risk over the rights of individuals to smoke a cigarette. Problems associated with secondhand smoke are well documented. Compounding this reality is the fact that a decision made by an individual or group of individuals in one room to smoke does not merely affect them, it also impacts adjoining rooms and hallway pedestrians. To this end, the University’s decision is a positive and proactive step to safeguard the health of students.

At the same time, the University’s decision tramples on the rights of a tenant to use the room they rented as they see fit. There are many apartment buildings that do not allow cigarette smoking in their rooms. The difference between these rooms and those that the University rents to students is the fact that half of GW’s students are required to live on campus. Given that smoking is a choice and living in University residence halls is not, GW must develop an alternative for student smokers – not wanting to have to leave their building to smoke – within its on-campus housing framework.

One option the University should consider is maintaining – and expanding – its program of having floors for smokers and those tolerant of smoking. This option works well in Thurston Hall, and expanding it to other residence halls would allow students the option of smoking when being required to live on campus, without inconveniencing other students. If the University adopts this proposal, it must ensure options for smoking students are not exclusive to less popular residence halls, such as Mitchell and Madison Halls, in an effort fill otherwise unpopular facilities. Student smokers should have the same living options as their non-smoking counterparts for the years they are required to live on campus.

Few can argue GW’s decision to ban smoking from residence halls is a positive step to protect students from the dangers of secondhand smoke. While ensuring this reality, however, the University cannot mandate smokers to live on campus without giving them the ability – with consenting roommates – to smoke in their rooms. It is imperative the University develop a corollary to this policy to reconcile these two competing, and justifiable, claims.

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