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Smokers find alternative to Tampa General Hospital's designated smoking area

DAVIS ISLANDS — On a recent afternoon, the scene along the waterway leading into Davis Islands resembled something between a homeless camp and a hospital ward.

Michelle Leaton, 50, a former St. Petersburg nurse, was among the characters.

She had undergone surgery the day before at Tampa General Hospital, just yards away. She wore blue bath slippers, white bathrobe and pink pajama pants with white flower prints. She dragged along an IV stand as she lighted her third Marlboro of the day.

Cars zoomed by and a few faces gawked at Leaton and several others puffing away.

"Should I smoke? No one should smoke," she said, standing on a stretch of public sidewalk. "But my primary care physician says this is not a good time to quit smoking."

There are no benches so Leaton and others squat on the wooden railing of an empty flower bed. Butts are strewn everywhere.

The undignified setting is due to a change in policy in January that banned smoking from the campus of Tampa Bay's busiest hospital. No longer can the nearly 6,500 employees and thousands of patients and visitors light up on Tampa General's grounds, including its parking garages.

Instead, a park area at the edge of campus along Seddon Channel is the designated smoking spot for those who must. Hospital officials don't want smokers crowding pathways to the hospital because of traffic safety concerns.

But seven months later, that's exactly what has happened. At any time of day, clusters of smokers smoke along the hospital's entrance under a bridge near the corner of Columbia Drive and Davis Islands Boulevard. Many, like Leaton, are patients in gowns or wheelchairs, dragging along rolling IV stands.

The nonsanctioned smoking area is public property — and in plain view of cars departing Davis Islands on the bridge to Bayshore Boulevard.

"I've noticed them," said Harold Moore, who has lived on Davis Islands for more than 30 years and runs the neighborhood watch. "That satisfies my curiosity because I didn't know why they were there.

"It was because of the hospital's smoking policy."

Leaton said she doesn't agree with a smoking ban when people are dealing with such stressful situations. Someone told her about the designated smoking zone at the park but she said she's not sure where it is.

"I can imagine what it looks like driving by seeing patients and employees having to stand out here," she said. "But I've heard you're not even allowed to smoke in your car because your car is on their property. Maybe when they start making my car payment . . ."

A few feet to her left, a man chimed in.

"It stinks," said Denis Ramsay, 44, of Punta Gorda.

His right arm was completely covered in gauze from his shoulder to his fingers. His legs were also wrapped, and he said he may need surgery after suffering first- and second-degree burns after brush exploded in a fire pit.

Ramsay's wife, Sharon, 56, sat next to him, with a cigarette in her hand. She was visiting the hospital but used a wheelchair because of herniated discs and fibromyalgia, she said.

"I feel like I'm sitting on the side of some railroad tracks," Sharon Ramsay said. "I've never seen anything like this in my life. From what I hear from the cleaning guy, the city doesn't want us out here smoking."

Some have complained to Tampa General about the smokers, hospital spokesman John Dunn said. But the site where they gather is out of the hospital's jurisdiction — just a few feet from the hospital's last "No smoking" sign.

"It's public property and people have a right to be there," Dunn said. "Smokers know where they have a right to smoke. We don't have a lot of leverage when it comes to that.

"The problem is we can't predict which of our visitors are going to smoke or when. We don't have much control over that. But we do go over there and clean it."

The hospital does have some control over smokers on staff. For the most part, JoAnn Shea, Tampa General's director of employee health and wellness, said employees have adjusted well to the ban.

"We made it clear to our managers and our employees that they needed to go out to the park to smoke," Shea said. "Most of the people out front are patients and visitors."

During a check last week, a number of employees were using Tampa General Hospital Park to smoke. But multiple checks of the unsanctioned smoking area revealed that badge-wearing employees were among the crowd there, as well — including one who didn't want her picture taken.

Before the ban, the hospital estimated that as many as 1,400 of its employees smoked. TGH discounted cessation medication to employees months beforehand to help anyone who wanted to quit, and as many as 30 have done so through the offer, Shea said.

TGH continues to offer nicotine care packages for visitors and patients. The kits include a piece of nicotine gum, a mint and a gift card for free coffee or a soft drink.

Hospital maps are also available, pointing out the designated smoking area.

Times photographer Skip O'Rourke contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Smokers find alternative to Tampa General Hospital's designated smoking area 09/01/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 1, 2011 4:31am]
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