Monday, April 10, 2006

ASH Director Threatens Personal Lawsuit Against George Washington University Staff Member if Outdoor Smoking is Not Banned

In what appears to be the first move of its kind ever, the head of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) has threatened George Washington University's (GWU) director of Risk Management and Insurance with a personal lawsuit filed against him individually for his failure to ban smoking outside all University buildings, according to an article in the GW Hatchet, a student newspaper.

The point of contention is not over indoor smoking, which is already banned in GWU buildings, but over smoking outside of these buildings, within a 25-foot distance.

According to the article, ASH's executive director said in his letter "that Smith [the director of Risk Management] is personally liable for the University's ruling and would be charged individually for his 'failing to act on this important health issue.'"

The article noted that "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.'"

The Rest of the Story

This is going way too far. To promote the adoption of an outdoor smoking ban at a university is one thing. To try to hold an individual university staff member liable for failure to adopt an outdoor smoking ban is quite another.

In addition to being frivolous because there are simply no legal grounds upon which to hold this individual personally liable for a decision that was made in a rational manner and based on a legitimate legal and practical concern (the enforceability of such a ban), this action really gives anti-smoking advocates and organizations a bad name by making us all look like fanatics who will sue anyone and anything in our way to pursue an overzealous agenda of trying to cleanse our world of smokers.

I want to make it clear that I don't buy the science argument for a minute. Sure - the levels of secondhand smoke outside a building entrance can be quite high. But nobody works outside the entrance to a building and stays there all day. You just move right through it and that's the end of it.

Now it may be true that there are a small number of people who are extremely sensitive to secondhand smoke: severe asthmatics for example. For such individuals, I think appropriate and reasonable accommodations can be made. But a legislated approach, where smoking is banned outside every building in a large area of a big city, is overkill.

Remember that because of the location of GWU in the urban center of Washington, D.C., a 25-foot no-smoking zone around every university building would essentially represent a complete ban on smoking in most outdoor areas of the section of the city where the university is located - including streets, sidewalks, and parking lots.

Even if secondhand smoke were a significant public health problem in outdoor public places where nonsmokers could easily avoid the smoke, I don't think you sue an individual employee for failure to adopt such a policy. Sue the university if you like, but it's not fair or appropriate to hold an individual responsible for an institutional policy like this. And I'm very glad that the university is going to defend this individual, even though I am an anti-smoking advocate myself.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to successfully argue that the anti-smoking movement is not turning into a completely fanatical movement. And an action such as this one makes it infinitely more difficult.

We have become absolutely crazy - meshuginah, for those of you who speak a little Yiddish.

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