Law prof. threatens GW with lawsuit in hopes of outdoor smoking ban

Law professor John Banzhaf, who has threatened to sue the University if it doesn’t ban smoking outside its buildings, took his threats one step further last week when he sent a letter of intent to sue to the director of the GW Office of Risk Management and Insurance.

Banzhaf initially told The Hatchet of his threat to sue in early March if GW didn’t restrict smoking within 25 feet of all University-owned buildings. He personally delivered the letter to Fitzroy Smith, GW’s director of Risk Management and Insurance, following the University’s rejection of the proposal in an April 1 smoking policy review.

Banzhaf said in his letter that Smith is personally liable for the University’s ruling and would be charged individually for his “failing to act on this important health issue.”

Banzhaf is well-known for the legal action he has taken against the smoking and fast food industries. His students often participate in his legal pursuits, and he has been a thorn in the University’s side on a number of issues during his many years in Foggy Bottom.

Banzhaf said last week that the letter also included citations of a study of tobacco smoke outside doorways on the University of Maryland campus. The study showed that it caused air pollution in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Code Red” category, meaning that it could pose an acute and chronic threat.

The suit, Banzhaf said, would call for Smith to settle the case in front of a special D.C. Office of Human Rights jury – not in a regular court. Smith, as well as GW’s General Counsel’s Office, directed all questions to GW’s Media Relations department.

“The University will support Mr. Smith,” assistant director of Media Relations Matt Lindsay said last week. “In this case, we do not think that the letter sets out anything which would support a lawsuit.”

Lindsay did say, however, that members of the Residential Advisory Council – a new board of student leaders in each dorm that will be created next year – will be advised that they can adopt, as part of their community living standards, a prohibition on smoking outside a GW residence.

Banzhaf responded by saying that “GW’s being stupid.” He said his motivation to push this issue – other than him being a non-smoker – is due to his membership with the organization Action on Smoking and Health, or ASH, which recently lobbied for and ultimately succeeded in placing a ban on smoking on all streets and sidewalks in Calabasas, Calif.

The University said it does not have the authority to enforce non-smoking rules on city-owned sidewalks, but Banzhaf said he will continue to push for self-enforcement of a 25-foot non-smoking limit outside of GW buildings through the placement of “no smoking” signs outside University entrances that pertains exclusively to GW faculty and students. He also said the University could easily enforce the policy on entrances that open to GW property such as University Yard.

“You’ll see outside the entrance to the Law School is a sign that says ‘Please No Smoking,’ as well as at GWU Hospital, where there is no smoking (within) 50 feet of the building. All are effective postings,” Banzhaf said.

Lindsay responded that “their proposed solution is unworkable,” adding, however, that GW is taking steps to address students’ and Banzhaf’s concerns. It is going to undertake a review of the location of ashtrays outside buildings and relocate them where possible, he said.

Banzhaf wants GW to hold a hearing open to the public to discuss and settle the matter instead of “acting behind closed doors.”

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