Many veterans fuming over nationwide smoking ban on VA facilities grounds

A nationwide smoking ban outside all Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities applying to visitors, patients and employees is creating 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 long has been tied to military: Cigarette ads featured troops, and the culture of the service historically promoted smoking on the battlefield or as a welcome respite from the stress of combat.

Smoking was already prohibited inside VA medical buildings, but now patients, employees and visitors will not be able to puff away 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 in New Hampshire, 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.”

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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 some veterans see the move as draconian.

Serving up drinks at the American Legion post in Concord in New Hampshire, Jeff Holland gets a little testy when the talk turns to smoking.

A Marine veteran who enjoys lighting up, the 44-year-old Holland 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.

“I get the aspect that it’s a hospital and for all practical purposes you shouldn’t be smoking inside the VA,” 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.”

Patient Michael Swan rests his arm on his walker while taking a cigarette break in the smoking shack outside the West Roxbury campus of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Boston, Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. The VA is set to ban smoking at all its grounds nationwide starting Oct. 1, a welcome move by health-conscious veterans but not by others who enjoy a smoke between appointments. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Patient Michael Swan rests his arm on his walker while taking a cigarette break in the smoking shack outside the West Roxbury campus of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Boston, Monday, Sept. 30, 2019. The VA is set to ban smoking at all its grounds nationwide starting Oct. 1, a welcome move by health-conscious veterans but not by others who enjoy a smoke between appointments. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Regardless of pushback, the ban is happening.

“We recognize this is a difficult change for many folks,” said John D’Adamo, who is co-chairing the smoke-free implementation working group for VA Boston.

Over the coming months, it is gradually implementing the ban for the 62,000 veterans it serves, 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,” D'Adamo 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, 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,” said 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 affects, they are pissed.”

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

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

Tony Botticello, a 76-year-old Coast Guard veteran whose lung cancer is in remission, said he often would pass by smokers in the 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.”