A Misguided Smoking Ban at GW

If you haven’t heard, GWU is planning to ban smoking in virtually all outdoor spaces starting in September 2013.

Here's our best guess at what "25 feet from all buildings" means. You can smoke in the intersections and a few corners. Good luck making sense of it.

The short story for the ban is this: 66% (of 20%) of students voted for the ban last year.  The faculty senate and board of trustees this year decided to implement it. Officially, the ban is being promoted as a move to improve public health on campus.  The dangers of second-hand smoke, as well as general ickiness factor are cited as major reasons for the ban.  Faculty, staff, and students that are caught smoking within 25 feet of any GW building (or in Kogan Plaza or University Yard) will face disciplinary action (but no specifics on what that means, yet.)

We support GW’s noble goal of becoming smoke free, and think they do a lot of good work to that end.  But we’re not so excited about this ban.  Here’s what we think:

It’s an ineffective solution. Smoking isn’t going to go away because you ban it on sidewalks, any more than homelessness will go away if you ban it.  Nicotine is a drug, and it’s addictive.  In fact, it’s highly addictive. Most people who smoke want to quit, but can’t.  We’re curious to see how enforcement will actually play out anyway, or if the ban will just be another “tool” non-smokers can use to verbally disparage smokers. Maybe if you make the environment hostile enough, smokers will just “self deport” right? Perhaps it will help UPD to bust drunk kids standing outside having a smoke.

It takes misguided action. Just read this: “Smokers are addicted to cigarettes, but we’d like them to stop smoking. Let’s punish them.” Referring students to SJS, and faculty and staff to HR for having a cigarette on a public sidewalk is demonstrably more harmful than the effects of second-hand smoke outdoors.

The “health issue” it addresses isn’t real. Or at least, there’s no scientific evidence that says it’s real.  There’s no doubt that smoking is bad for your health.  There’s no doubt that second-hand smoke can be bad for health as well. There’s no evidence that second-hand smoke outdoors, in this context, is bad for your health. Studies on second-hand smoke overwhelmingly investigate chronic exposure to second-hand smoke indoors.  The few studies that do exist on outdoor SHS can show only that exposure levels may surpass EPA recommended safe levels with prolonged exposure to an outdoor smoker in close proximity (within about 7 feet, it seems). That means that the only thing a person needs to do to be protected from second-hand smoke outdoors is not stand immediately next to a smoker, on a calm day, for the entire duration of their cigarette. If you want to say “but all the little whiffs I get just walking by add up!” well, they might.  But you don’t have any proof of that, and it’s not very likely, thanks to something called a dose-response relationship. That’s why you can drink all the tap water you want, despite the fact that tap water often has arsenic in it and not die of arsenic poisoning.  It doesn’t add up, figuratively or literally. You’re not entitled to an opinion on it, either. It’s an empirical question, with an actual correct answer. GW should be better than the anti-science reactionaries we so often find running for public office.  (Climate change is real, folks.)

It affects certain groups of people disproportionately. The facts are that smoking is more prevalent among racial minorities (ie: non-white folks) and people of lower incomes. (The gap between white and black smoking rates in DC is particularly wide.)  I don’t have statistics on this, but it’s safe to say that a strong majority of the staff that are in service positions at GWU are likely to be in one of those two categories (unless GW pays way better than I imagine it would.)  When staff get caught smoking, they’ll get referred to HR.  That means that a group of predominantly white, predominantly wealthy kids voted to punish a group of predominantly minority, predominantly less wealthy people for smoking.  Way to be, rich white kids. If you want to argue “But it’s better for their health to quit, so it’s okay,” then congratulations, Sandra Bullock, I loved your portrayal of how tough white love can save minorities from their dangerous Blind Side lives.

So the question then, is why did GW decide to enact the ban? We dont’ know for sure, but have a hunch that it might have something to do with this. Just follow the money.  If it’s true that the real reason for the ban is GW wanting to retain as many funding opportunities as possible, then fine, but let’s have a little transparency, please.

There are better means to this end. This isn’t to say that GW should do nothing to promote public health and comfort.  A ban in front of doorways is a reasonable solution that accommodates all parties and keeps non-smokers safe. Additionally, moving smoker ashtray pots and butt receptacles to places not immediately in front of doorways would be a good idea.

GW should help people to quit, not punish those who can’t. A little known fact is that GW actually recently rolled out an excellent smoking cessation program that includes, among many other facets, 8 weeks of nicotine replacement therapy (read: the patch) at no cost for faculty and staff.  GW should be applauded for these efforts. Plans like this should be expanded to the student population as well, and promoted heavily on campus.

PS:  Please don’t comment about how you want to ban smoking at GW because you personally think it’s gross.  You can vent all you want about how icky it is at TGIFriday’s while you guzzle your 64 oz fruity mojito-flavored margarita (from powder-mix) and scarf your 3500 calorie Chicken Angiopasta before driving home in your knock-off Drakkar Noir drenched Range Rover, blaring Gangnam Style from the speakers.  (Don’t tear your leggings as you get into the door.)  Putting up with annoying crap you think is gross but that doesn’t actually harm you is called “living in society.”  Icky is just not a valid reason to ban anything, be it smoking, marriage equality, or even terrible, terrible books.