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Department of Veterans Affairs facilities to be smoke-free by October

U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO

By NIKKI WENTLING | Stars and Stripes | Published: July 8, 2019

WASHINGTON — A smoking ban is set to go into effect at Department of Veterans Affairs health care facilities across the country starting Oct. 1 — more than 25 years after such bans became the norm at other American hospitals.

The smoke-free policy applies to patients, visitors, volunteers, contractors and vendors at VA facilities, and it prohibits cigarettes, cigars, pipes, vape pens and e-cigarettes. The VA announced the change earlier in the summer citing “growing evidence” that smoking, as well as secondhand and thirdhand smoke, is a medical and safety risk.

Anyone caught violating the policy could be subject to a $50 fine.

“This policy change coincides with additional… efforts to help us become the provider of choice for veterans and the reason why veterans will choose VA,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement.

Smoking has remained permissible at VA facilities because of the Veterans Health Care Act of 1992, a federal mandate requiring the VA to establish designated smoking areas. When other hospitals began implementing smoking bans in the early 1990s – and when other federal facilities shuttered their designated smoking areas in 2009 – the Veterans Health Care Act was cited as a reason the VA couldn't do the same.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2013 contends the tobacco industry manipulated veterans organizations and Congress to create the Veterans Health Care Act of 1992 after the first VA secretary, Ed Derwinski, announced in 1990 his intentions to prohibit smoking inside VA facilities.

Numerous VA officials have attempted for years to rally congressional support against the policy outlined in the Veterans Health Care Act.

The most recent effort came in 2017, when Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, led a failed attempt to pass legislation that would immediately ban smoking inside VA facilities and gradually eliminate outdoor smoking areas. The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs unanimously agreed to advance the bill, but it never went for a vote on the House floor.

The authority for Wilkie to change the policy without an act of Congress comes from the agency’s “core health mission,” according to the VA. In a directive about the new smoke-free policy, Richard Stone, executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, notes a federal law that states the basic purpose of the VA hospital system is to “provide a complete medical and hospital service for the medical care and treatment of veterans."

The new policy calls for all designated smoking areas to be dismantled. At the latest count, there were nearly 1,000 outdoor smoking areas at VA hospitals, clinics and nursing homes nationwide, as well as 15 indoor smoking areas.

In 2017, when lawmakers discussed Wenstrup’s bill, The American Legion said the measure could be government overreach – a way to “legislate personal choices.”

At the time, the Veterans of Foreign Wars argued veterans might not seek treatment at VA facilities if they couldn’t smoke there. The VFW and other veterans groups also warned of unintended consequences, such as forcing a lifestyle change and eliminating a form of stress relief and social interaction for veteran patients.

Wilkie's decision to prohibit smoking hasn't elicited the same kind of pushback.

On Monday, VFW spokesman Joe Davis said: “Any decision that promotes the health and wellbeing of all veterans is a good decision.”

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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