Law professor John Banzhaf: End GWU’s smoking gauntlets

It’s time to ban smoking around all GWU building entrances so that students and others will no longer have to run a gauntlet of dangerous as well as unpleasant tobacco smoke every time they enter or leave. Here are a few of the reasons why:

Actual measurements near doorways at the University of Maryland show that concentrations of tobacco smoke from smokers standing outside reach levels as high as the Environmental Protection Agency’s unhealthy (red) level.

More generally, careful scientific studies have proven that concentrations of secondhand tobacco smoke in many outdoor areas are often as high as in some indoor areas, and that the risks posed by such outdoor exposure can be well beyond generally accepted norms when large numbers of people are involuntarily exposed.

Indeed, for these very reasons, the state of California – in a report summarizing much of this medical evidence – is preparing to declare outdoor tobacco smoke a “toxic air pollutant.”

Drifting tobacco smoke, even outdoors, can trigger or exacerbate asthmatic attacks, bronchial infections and other serious health problems in nonsmokers. This is especially true for the almost 100 million Americans who have asthma, chronic bronchitis, allergies, chronic sinusitis, emphysema and other breathing-related conditions which make them especially susceptible to secondhand tobacco smoke.

In light of this knowledge, GWU, which by law must take reasonable precautions to protect its students and faculty, could be sued if a person suffered from an asthmatic attack, heart attack or other health problem possibly brought on by this unnecessary exposure to tobacco smoke on its campus. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld a wrongful death verdict of a person exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke.

Society recognizes that people have a right not to be involuntarily exposed to known cancer-causing substances, even if only to small amounts and for brief periods. That’s why, for example, extensive and very expensive precautions are taken whenever asbestos is removed from buildings. This insures that people outside are not exposed even to minute amounts of asbestos dust as they pass by. Secondhand tobacco smoke is officially classified by the federal government as a “known human carcinogen” – exactly the same category as asbestos.

GWU already prohibits smoking around entrances to its hospital and to Rice Hall. The rules work. Shouldn’t persons entering all GWU buildings have the same protection as our doctors and president?

More than 350 jurisdictions have successfully prohibited smoking in outdoor areas – e.g., near building entrances, while waiting in lines, etc. Very strong recent evidence of this new trend is the overwhelming vote by the citizens of the state of Washington to ban smoking not only in all bars and restaurant, but to also require that building entrances be smoke-free, and to prohibit smoking within 25 feet of doorways, windows and ventilation ducts of smoke-free establishments. This vote comes on the heels of a poll by the New York State Health Department that showed that public support for banning smoking in many outdoor areas is even stronger than similar support then for a 2003 law that banned indoor smoking.

With D.C. likewise about to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, let’s clear the air around GWU’s doorways of unnecessary and carcinogenic tobacco smoke. For more information, and references for the above, please see: To sign a petition for such a change prepared by a student (, please go to

-The writer is a professor of public interest law at the GW Law School.

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