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The St. Louis Post-Dispatch publishes a medical advice column every weekday in the comics section. Originally written by Dr. Donahue, it’s been taken over by Dr. Kenneth Roach of the Weill Cornell Medical College. Today he responded to a letter reproduced below concerning hospital smoking.
It’s amazing that this is still a problem, but I also recall how surprisingly difficult it has been to get hospitals to address this seriously until the relatively recent past. As I’ve noted before, instead of being in the vanguard of the smoke-free air movement, they were really slow to respond.
I recall a visit to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in downtown St. Louis to ask them about permitted smoking in the entrance foyer and in the wards. I also queried how they could square offering tobacco products in their shop with their medical mission. The reply to this was that their volunteers raised significant amounts from tobacco sales, and they also didn’t want to force their patients to have to leave the hospital for their smoking needs.
Back in those days smoking was permitted on the oncology floor with cancer patients, with visitors being allowed to smoke too. I was told of instances when nurses would respond aggressively when a by nonsmoking patient would complain. What hell that must have been.
Asthmatic Vivian Dietemann, whose son Christopher also had asthma needing many medical visits for treatment, had serious difficulty with the smoking she encountered when visiting doctor’s offices and clinics. She ended up filing multiple complaints under the Americans with Disabilities Act to try to bring about institutional change, which prompted MoGASP to follow suit over Lambert Airport’s smoking, embarking on our longest-running campaign. Starting in 1993, it didn’t end until the successful approval of Proposition-N: “Indoor Clean Air Code,” on the November 3, 2009 St. Louis County ballot. Lambert Airport finally took out it’s smoking rooms before the smokefree air ordinance went into effect on Jan. 2, 2011.
Dear Dr. Roach • I retired from a large hospital after smoking was prohibited in the building. At that time, doctors still smoked in their lounge, and other employees — nurses, technicians, etc. — smoked on the adjacent strip-mall property or in their personal vehicles. I imagine that the doctors no longer smoke in their lounge and are not seen in public view, but employees still smoke in public view. It’s obvious because most of the medical staff wear scrubs. — L.
Answer • Health care professionals can make bad decisions about their health, but I agree with your implication that they have an obligation not to do so while in the role of someone concerned for health.
I certainly have seen physicians in white coats smoking outside my own (previous) hospital, and routinely see other health professionals do so. It’s hypocrisy for us to then tell others not to smoke. So, to my colleagues in medicine: Please don’t smoke when you are recognizable as a health professional. It makes it harder to get people to quit.