Reality Check: Why are VA facilities the only hospitals in NC to allow smoking?

A federal law requires the VA to maintain smoking areas (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

All hospitals in North Carolina have smoke free campuses, but there is an exception: VA hospitals.

The VA's own website says smokers are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, yet VA facilities must maintain a smoking area. That is because of a law Congress passed in 1992.

'It's absurd'

Glenn Rechtine is a Navy veteran and doctor. His resume includes serving patients as a spinal surgeon at the Asheville VA.

The sign on the Asheville VA's campus says it's a tobacco free campus, but if you keep reading it says, "Except in designated areas."

"It's absurd. It is politically motivated by the tobacco lobby," said Rechtine of the VA's smoking requirements.

The Asheville VA has three outside smoking areas. Psychologist Laura Tugman is the Asheville VA's assistant chief of mental health service. She said they tell veterans they need to stop smoking and offer programs to help them quit.

"We're providing really strong, clinically-based care for those veterans when they get ready to stop smoking," Dr. Tugman said.

She does not believe the required smoking areas hurt those cessation efforts.

"No, I think it supports our veterans. It supports everyone else who doesn't want to be around it because it's in a designated area, so everyone else can avoid it," Dr. Tugman said.

'Everyone has an opinion'

Rechtine calls the mandate medical malpractice.

"It's malpractice, because they can't do what they need to do, which is evidence-based, what's needed," Rechtine said.

"Everyone has an opinion about it," Tugman responded to questions about what Rechtine said. "No. It's not part of the care. It's part of accommodating our veterans while they're here and listening to their voices."

In the early '90s, the VA was going to become smoke free. Then Congress passed a law requiring smoking areas. There's a bill stuck in Congress now to repeal the requirement.

Rechtine tried to get North Carolina congressmen involved. Without success, he turned News 13 to reach viewers.

"There's no lobby to move it forward. I'm trying to get a grassroots effect to try to get people to pay attention, write to their congressmen, say, 'Move this forward.' Let's get it done," he said.

Tugman said the VA lets patients evaluate where their health levels are, and pick where they want them to be.

"We're not in the role of policing people in the choices they make about their health," she said.

Rechtine says the VA can't stop nicotine addictions while offering places to smoke.

"You don't hold AA meetings in the back of a bar," he said.

Tugman says smoking cessation is a huge focus at the VA. Pharmacists and psychologists run the programs together. She also says the care they provide depends on what each veteran wants.

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