Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em—quick. VA facilities are going smoke-free.
It’s been 44 years since the military included cigarettes in troop rations. It’s been about 25 years since U.S. hospitals started to ban smoking. Now the Department of Veterans Affairs is getting onboard announcing all VA facilities will be smoke-free starting in October 2019. Vape pens, e-cigarettes and e-cigars are included in the ban, and violators will face a $50 fee.
The ban applies to everyone on-site at a VA facility except staff. However, Congress is considering legislation that would also prohibit employees from smoking on-site.
There is an exception to the facility ban: VA facilities co-located with a Defense Department hospital. The policy change only affects the VA-controlled grounds, as many DoD hospitals still allow smoking in designated areas.
“This policy change coincides with additional VHA efforts to help us become the provider of choice for Veterans and the reason why Veterans will choose VA.” — VA Secretary Robert Wilkie
Concerns about health risks related to second- and third-hand smoke are driving the policy change, in addition to a desire to create consistency in the VA’s efforts to support veteran smoking-cessation programs.
Previous attempts to ban smoking at VA facilities were stonewalled in Congress until Wilkie took executive authority based on the VA’s “core health mission,” a Stars and Stripes article reports.
The Veterans Health Care Act of 1992 is the reason the VA continued to allow smoking at a time when other health care systems were banning it. The tobacco lobby influenced the creation of this act, according to an American Journal of Public Health study. The bill in Congress would also repeal the 1992 Act.
Tobacco products are far from non-existent in the military with commissaries and military exchanges still selling them and often at below-market prices. DoD data finds approximately 14% of active-duty troops are “occasional smokers” but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports tobacco use among veterans “significantly outpaces that among civilian peers,” according to military.com.
The new policy is not going over great with everyone, especially residents of VA homes and long-term hospital patients. Retired U.S. Army soldier Cary Pergande was one of those soldiers who looked forward to his cigarettes rations in Vietnam. He told the St. Cloud Times his smoke breaks with fellow patients at the St. Cloud VA Health System are the highlight of his day.
“We are dying,” said Pergande. “We went through hell, we fought wars. If we want to smoke, let us smoke!”
The Minnesota facility decided to accelerate its implementation of the policy, launching it this month. The Department of Veterans Affairs has said it will institute programs to help VA residents and staff quit.