Smokefree DC is a citizen-based group whose goal is to promote smokefree environments in Washington, DC.

What smokefree zone? Video captures secondhand smoke problem at American University

American Smoke from Noah Jacobs on Vimeo.

American University is known for being progressive, with students who are environmentally conscious and a faculty that emphasizes public service in the curriculum.

So people may be surprised to learn that the school’s signs designating smokefree zones are so vague and poorly (read: not at all) enforced that no one pays much attention to them.  Large groups of students smoke directly in front of doorways, producing a significant amount of secondhand smoke, which everyone breathes as they go to and from class.

It’s all captured in a great video by student Noah Jacobs, who is studying for a master’s degree in film and video. A self-proclaimed clean air guy, Jacobs grew really irked by having to breathe large quantities of secondhand smoke every time he entered and exited a university building.

Jacobs set out to learn why the signs are so vague and poorly enforced. His entertaining and clever video features interviews with students — both smokers and non-smokers — and a soft-spoken, woeful public safety officer who sheepishly admits that the campus police aren’t about to deal with renegade smokers. “We’re not responsible for enforcing it,” the man says. He has such a deer-in-the-headlights look that you almost feel sorry for him.

Jacobs’ video documents how signs are posted at entranceways declaring smokefree zones, but they don’t say how far away from the building a smoker must be. The signs, he says, “have the clarity of a drunken e-mail.” So students ignore the signs and smoke away.  Particularly interesting is when he asks students what the signs mean and how far away they have to be from the door. No one knows the answer. And that’s the point: There is no answer.

Jacobs tries to get an explanation from AU’s president, Neil Kerwin. Jacobs catches the president at a public meeting where he pops the question. Kerwin says he hopes peer pressure and voluntary compliance will solve the problem. Asking public safety officers to deal with it, he says, “is an awful lot to ask.”

Really? What about signs that say “no smoking within 25 feet of the doorway”? Is that really too much to ask?

Jacobs doesn’t think so, and I’m sure most of his fellow students, particularly the non-smoking ones, would agree. The president and his council are expected to consider the matter soon. The best thing people can do is email the president and tell him to do two things: 1) Post signs that designate how many feet from the entranceway a smoker must stand; and 2) enforce the signs.

Contact the president’s office today. E-mail him at

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