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Tampa General Hospital prepares for its smoking ban

Cinnamon has become Bobbie Kendrick's savior as she tries to quit smoking before the end of the year. She puts it in her coffee now and swears it helps to curb her craving. No, it's not merely health concerns or the pack-a-day financial hit that's driving her, but a pressing deadline. They're banning smoking from her workplace — inside, outside, parking lots, in her car, everywhere — at an institution where a tobacco blockade makes ethical sense. Tampa General Hospital.

In January, the massive medical center, as well as all St. Joseph's hospitals and Plant City's South Florida Baptist Hospital, will join the majority of hospitals nationwide that prohibit smoking on their campuses.

To ease into that policy, the Hills­borough hospitals are offering discounts and programs to help employees cope and quit. Tampa General kicked off its employee-help campaign this summer at a health fair with pulmonary screenings, door prizes and information on hospital-sponsored nicotine help aids.

"We realize it's the right thing to do," said JoAnn Shea, Tampa General's director of employee health and wellness. "A hospital should support community health and the health of our employees."

While visitors and patients have complained about the coming policy, a survey conducted by nursing students showed that many employees feel the policy gives them a reason to quit, Shea said.

"Actually I think it's pretty good," said Kendrick, a cafeteria cook who has slowed to two cigarettes a day over the past six months. "It's not easy because once you get that nicotine in your system, it wants more."

St. Joseph's and Tampa General have created several committees to discuss the coming ban and resolve concerns. Both offer employee smoking cessation classes, products and discounted medications. St. Joseph's is offering employees reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses related to kicking the habit and discounted medical plans for people who do.

At Tampa General, the hospital is discounting Chantix, a drug that helps people quit, offering employees the medication for $15 a month — $81 less than usual. Lozenges, patches and gum are 50 percent off for employees. Seeing a nurse practitioner who can prescribe cessation products is free.

"The employees who don't want to quit smoking," Shea said, "we're not telling them to quit."

A survey indicated that 700 of Tampa General's 6,480 employees smoke, but Shea said it's probably more than double that number. While going off campus to smoke might be easy for patients and employees at most hospitals, it's tougher at Tampa General since the hospital is surrounded by water.

Some employees have joked they would get in a boat and row out into the water to smoke, prompting TGH officials to respond in jest that the hospital's property line extends 10 feet out into Seddon Channel.

Tampa General decided one way to help the legion of smokers was to beef up lighting and security at Tampa General Park, a city-owned park on the edge of the campus, so people can smoke safely.

Come January, University Community Hospital in North Tampa will be one of the few medical facilities left allowing smoking in designated outdoor areas. That's mainly because the hospital has stalled many future policy changes while its parent company explores a merger.

"Really in the last year, we've really been in limbo as far as policies," hospital spokesman Will Darnall said.

Brandon Regional Hospital banned tobacco use on its grounds Jan. 1 while the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa went tobacco-free in April 2008. Also in 2008, the Pasco County Health Department helped pass a countywide initiative prohibiting tobacco use at hospitals.

St. Joseph's has already instituted the ban on its north campus in Lutz, which opened in February.

"We felt it was something we needed to do," spokeswoman Lisa Patterson said.

In August 2009, the Joint Commission, a national health care accrediting body, reported that more than 45 percent of U.S. hospitals had adopted a smoke-free campus policy as of 2008 with 15 percent more moving toward one.

By the end of the year, Shea said, 70 percent of all hospitals will be smoke-free.

TGH visitors like Patty Jenkins will have a tough time coping with that reality.

"Sixteen days I've been here," Jenkins, 50, said recently between puffs on a cigarette in a hospital parking garage. "No way to go home, nothing. I'm stuck here."

She lives three hours east in White City and came here to be with her mother, a patient at the time. Jenkins, 50, had been at the hospital so long she wore blue scrubs to feel more comfortable.

She smoked because of the stress. She smoked to kill time. A nurse in Vero Beach, she knows better. But the waiting and stress were too much, she said.

"When I'm out here, I smoke as many as I can."

For patients and visitors, Shea said the hospital will hand out care packages to smokers during the first six months of next year that will include a piece of nicotine gum, a mint and a gift card for free coffee or a soft drink. Nicotine gum will be sold in the gift shop and the hospital will hand out palm cards for patients and visitors with a map of off-campus smoking areas.

While smoking will be scrubbed from Tampa General's campus, one vice will remain for visitors and employees.

The McDonald's inside.

"It keeps our cardiac unit busy," Shea joked.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Tampa General Hospital prepares for its smoking ban 08/12/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 12, 2010 1:22pm]
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