George Washington University officials decided to announce the coming of an on-campus smoking ban during the American Cancer Society's Great American Smokeout on November 15. Before they could do so, dozens of students and staff members were lighting up in protest.
The protesters chain-smoked for hours in a campus plaza Nov. 13. They say the ban, set to start next school year, will push smokers into unsafe areas or public streets. Organizers wrote in an open letter that kicking "smokers out of outside — the absurdity here should be noted — destroys the basic freedom of everyone; from the student, to the worker, to the faculty, to the woman walking by, to the man working in a food truck."
Advocates of the ban at GWU are holding strong.
"The CDC and surgeon general say there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke," said Julien Guttman, a GWU public health graduate student who is part of the advocacy group Colonials for Clean Air. "No matter how much science we have to back up what we are saying, there will always be individuals who see this as a restriction on their freedom."
Colleges and universities have become the latest target of anti-smoking groups. While schools have long banned smoking indoors, the new bans are addressing outdoor space.
More than 800 schools have banned smoking on campus, according to the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation. The list is dominated by medical schools and nonresidential community colleges, although more and more residential colleges and universities are joining.
"It has been a huge growing trend," said Thomas A. Carr, the American Lung Association's director of national policy. "In 2004, we only had a handful of schools that were even looking at this. All of a sudden, we have big schools going smoke free."
In Maryland, many community colleges have long been smoke-free. Towson University joined the list in August 2010, and Frostburg State University did so the next summer. The University System of Maryland regents voted in June to ban smoking at the dozen campuses it oversees, including its flagship university in College Park, starting next school year.
In Washington, American University announced this month that all tobacco products will be banned starting in August. Farther south, in once-tobacco-rich Virginia, the trend has yet to gain traction.
Carr and other ban advocates credited the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for pushing the issue this year through its Tobacco-Free College Campus Initiative.
Assistant Secretary for Health Howard K. Koh announced the launch of the initiative in September at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which implemented a tobacco ban last year. Koh said the bans decrease exposure to secondhand smoke, create a culture that encourages users to quit and set "the smoke-free and tobacco-free campus as the social norm in our society."
College is a time in life when young smokers cement their addictions, experts say, and the bans make it more difficult for smokers to light up. Approximately 15 percent of college students smoked cigarettes in 2011, down from 31 percent in 1999, according to estimates in the latest Monitoring the Future drug and alcohol survey. Overall, youth smoking rates dramatically decreased between 1997 and 2003 and have continued to decline, although at a slower pace.
Students aren't the only campus dwellers who smoke. There are also faculty and staff members who do so — and are usually part of university health-care plans. Most universities wait a semester or academic year before implementing bans to prepare smokers for the transition, often offering free or reduced-price cessation programs.
The most difficult part of implementing a smoking or tobacco product ban is enforcing it. Some schools issue fines, while others refer students or staff to disciplinary boards. Most rely on the community to self-enforce.
Catching violators has been a challenge for sprawling, major universities — but it is expected to be even more of a challenge at GWU, which has a highly urban campus that's shared with those living and working in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington. The ban will be enforced within a 25-foot radius of university buildings and open spaces the university owns.
So, once the ban is in place, what will happen if the chain-smoking protesters continue to light up in GWU's Kogan Plaza? Officials are still figuring that out.