VA bans smoking around facilities as some vets fume

The VA move is a cultural shift that targets a link between the military and tobacco. Some vets say it is overreach, while others welcome the change.

Charles Krupa/AP
A sign directs people to a smoking shack outside the main entrance of the West Roxbury campus of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Boston, Sept. 30, 2019. Starting Oct. 1, there will be no such areas for patients, staff, and visitors to smoke on VA grounds.

At the American Legion post in Concord, Jeff Holland gets a little testy when the talk turns to smoking.

The Marine veteran fought unsuccessfully against a ban at the post that went into effect this month. And starting Tuesday, he will be prohibited from smoking when he visits the nearby Manchester VA Medical Center in New Hampshire.

It is part of a nationwide smoking ban outside all VA medical facilities that applies to visitors, patients, and employees.

"I get the aspect that it's a hospital and for all practical purposes you shouldn't be smoking inside the VA," Mr. Holland said. "But as far outside, I think they should still have a smoking area. I mean you got guys from World War I, World War II where this is all they have known for 40 or 50 years. To kind of take that right away, it's kind of a shame."

Smoking was already prohibited inside VA medical buildings, but now patients, employees, and visitors will not be able to partake anywhere on the grounds. Previously, smoking was allowed in designated shelters dotting the grounds of VA medical facilities. Posters and banners promoting the ban have been put up in facilities and the VA is alerting veterans through social media and letters. They have also held forums on the ban.

"This is a really good thing for our veterans and our staff," said Kevin Forrest, associate director of the Manchester VA, which serves 27,000 veterans. "It's a safer environment. It reduces fire risk. There is certainly evidence that smoking and second-hand exposure is a medical risk for our veterans."

The smoking ban was first announced this summer. It brings the facilities in line with bans already in place at 4,000 medical facilities and four national health care systems that have made their grounds smoke free.

But the move isn't without controversy. A third of veterans smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many were introduced to the habit while serving. Tobacco has long been tied to military: Cigarette ads featured troops, and the culture of the service historically promoted smoking on the battlefield or as a respite from the stress of combat.

"We recognize this is a difficult change for many folks," John D'Adamo, who is co-chairing the smoke-free implementation working group for VA Boston. It is gradually implementing the ban for the 62,000 veterans it serves over the coming months, including providing resources that could help veterans kick the habit. Violators will initially be warned of the policy and eventually VA police will enforce it.

"This is a major cultural change," he continued. "It's really been something often utilized for comradery, essentially a sense of community."

But even a gradual rollout is seen as too stringent for some smokers – and even some veterans who don't smoke. They argue that there should be some place for smoking at VA facilities and fear that some veterans may choose cigarettes or cigars over visiting their VA doctors.

"It's going a little too far," Gregory d'Arbonne, president of the New Hampshire chapter of the Association of the United States Army. "I'm against smoking, but there are people who smoke. When they do, they go outside and have this little smoking area. Now, what are they going to do?"

Jorg Dreusicke, a 72-year-old former smoker from New Hampshire who recruits members for the Veterans of Foreign Wars nationwide, called the move government overreach. He started smoking at the age of 10 and quit three years ago.

"It's big brother telling people how to live," he said. "Some people don't mind because it doesn't affect them. But for those it effects, they are [mad]."

He predicted that after a "period of revolt" and much complaining, veterans would eventually return to medical centers.

Others are welcoming the ban, saying it is long overdue.

Tony Botticello, a Coast Guard veteran whose lung cancer is in remission, said he would often pass by smokers in parking lot on the way to his treatment at the Manchester VA. He smoked for over 50 years but quit smoking five years ago.

"It's personal for me," he said. "Maybe this will make somebody think about the ramifications of smoking and how some people find smoking offensive."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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