December 5, 2008 — Staff and visitors at the University of Virginia Medical Center no longer have to pass knots of smokers, stray wisps of blue smoke drifting into their paths.
The Health System closed the smoking area Nov. 24 — a mostly symbolic sign of things to come. By Oct. 1, 2009, the Medical Center will be totally smoke-free, indoors and out, and U.Va. will have joined a long and growing list of hospitals that have enacted similar bans.
"We wanted to send a very powerful message that our smoke-free campaign is expanding," said Reba Camp, who is leading the effort as the chairwoman of its steering committee.
The campaign recently received the blessing of Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine. Early on, it won the backing of the Medical Center's Employee Communications Council, Camp said.
"It is our judgment that this is the right thing to do," R. Edward Howell, vice president and chief executive officer of the U.Va. Health System, told the Medical Center Operating Board on Thursday. "We are a health-care facility."
While Howell conceded that the smoking ban is "not universally popular," Camp said that the plan has been endorsed even by some smokers, some of whom she sought out to serve on the steering committee.
Smoking has long been banned inside Medical Center facilities, with smokers redirected to a few designated outdoor smoking areas. But beginning with the area outside the doors to the hospital lobby, those areas gradually will be closed through Oct. 1.
A map of the area covered by the eventual ban shows a huge plot of blue, stretching from the railroad tracks along Crispell Drive through the Hospital Parking Garage South, then up 15th Street, across Jefferson Park Avenue, along Hospital Drive and West Main Street, around the University's heating plant and then back up Jefferson Park Avenue to West Main and Roosevelt Brown Boulevard.
Taking cues from other hospitals that have instituted similar bans in recent years, the U.Va. Medical Center is giving long notice, and will spend the next 10 months ramping up its communications with employees, referring physicians, patients and families, and offering assistance in kicking the habit.
No one should have to quit "cold turkey." Employees have already been notified, giving them at least a year's notice. Between now and Oct. 1, the Medical Center will send letters to referring physicians, and include notices of the policy in all communications with patients. Signs are already posted around the hospital; press releases will be distributed and table tents placed in dining areas.
The Medical Center will offer smoking cessation programs, for both employees and patients. Camp added that the Health System's employee health plan was recently expanded to cover the cost of smoking-cessation items like nicotine patches.
"We realize that smoking is an addiction, and people just aren't able to quit instantly," said Camp, an administrative programs coordinator whose normal purview is making sure the Medical Center's environment is welcoming. "We want to be very sensitive to people who smoke, and particularly to patients and families."
She acknowledges that hospitals are often stressful environments, and smoking is how some people cope with stress. To that end, a temporary smoking area has been set up for families and patients outside the Emergency Department — until Oct. 1.
But Camp warned, "We're not being apologists about this. We really are celebrating that this is something that is important to our health care mission."
Come Oct. 1, Camp knows that there will be some resistance. Security officers and others who encounter smokers will be trained on how to approach them, and they will be redirected outside the Health System campus.
Howell told the Medical Center Operating Board that he expects the number of people who will quit working rather than quit smoking to be in the single digits. He noted that it would be difficult to find any health care facility these days that allows smoking.
"We certainly don't want people to leave, but we expect them to comply with the policy," Camp said. "I think the majority of people will appreciate that we are doing this with such deliberation and respect.
"I don't see a groundswell of opposition to this at all."