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Department of Veterans Affairs’ new ‘smoke-free’ policy doesn’t apply to employees

Nikki Wentling | Stars and Stripes

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs announced its health care facilities will soon be “smoke-free,” though a smoking ban set to take effect Oct. 1 does not apply to employees, the agency clarified Friday.

While veterans, visitors, volunteers, contractors and vendors will be prohibited from smoking on VA grounds, employees will keep their smoking privileges because of a memorandum of understanding between the VA and the American Federation of Government Employees, a federal union that represents VA workers.

The memorandum requires the department to maintain smoking areas for employees, said Tim Kauffman, a communications specialist with the AFGE.

“By Oct. 1, VA will institute this commonsense policy for patients, visitors, contractors, volunteers and vendors throughout the Veterans Health Administration, but unfortunately, AFGE has not agreed to allow VA to curb employee smoking at department health care facilities,” the VA said Friday in a statement.

A VA nurse in Michigan called the discrepancy unfair.

“We are not a smokeless facility, then, so why are they even promoting it?” the nurse said, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of concern she would be reprimanded for criticizing the policy. "How can I look at a veteran with integrity and say, ‘I can’t let you go out to smoke,’ but my coworker just went out there? My feeling is, it should be all or none.”

The VA announced in early summer the new smoke-free policy at its hospitals, clinics and nursing homes, citing “growing evidence” that smoking, as well as secondhand and thirdhand smoke, is a medical and safety risk. The policy prohibits cigarettes, cigars, pipes, vape pens and e-cigarettes.

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

The new policy also calls for the “dismantling” and “phasing out” of all designated smoking areas, though a federal mandate — the Veterans Health Care Act of 1992 — requires the VA to maintain them. 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.

On Thursday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, introduced legislation that would apply the smoking ban to employees, as well as anyone else on VA premises. The measure would also repeal the section of the Veterans Health Care Act of 1992 that requires the VA to provide designated smoking areas.

Wenstrup introduced the same bill in 2017. It passed the House, but the Senate never considered it.