Hospitals around the Tampa Bay region are ringing in 2011 with a healthy resolution long in the works: extinguishing on-campus smoking.
That means no exceptions. Staffers can't light up in parked cars. Visitors can't smoke in the gardens. And the hospitals are tobacco-free, so there's no resorting to options that don't produce smoke. At Tampa General, employees even asked if they could lean over the sidewalk to smoke over the surrounding water. The answer was no.
Quitting is never easy, not even for hospitals. But for their leaders, the need to ban smoking — the leading preventable cause of death — from institutions of healing has trumped fears of how stressed-out smokers might react. By Monday, the vast majority of local hospitals won't allow any smoking, as the latest converts join institutions such as Bayfront Medical Center, All Children's Hospital, University of South Florida Health and Moffitt Cancer Center that previously took the step.
"If we're going to talk the talk, we have to walk the walk," said Dr. Mark Vaaler, chief medical officer for St. Joseph's hospitals and South Florida Baptist Hospital, part of the newly tobacco-free BayCare Health System. "We are here to help promote healthy behaviors."
In recent months, smokers have been deluged with a fresh wave of warnings. A new report by the U.S. Surgeon General found that even brief exposure to secondhand smoke can cause heart disease and potentially heart attacks. The federal government is proposing to slap graphic warning labels on cigarette cartons showing images of devastating effects like grotesquely diseased lungs.
Smoking, which causes more than 85 percent of lung cancers, can lead to cancer throughout the body. One in three cancer deaths in the United States is tobacco-related.
Hospitals have spent months mapping out their transition, from offering classes to help employees kick the habit to stocking nicotine gum in their gift stores.
For the next six months, Tampa General nurses will be equipped with "tobacco-free visitor care kits." Along with maps of hospital boundaries and resources for quitting, they include two pieces of nicotine gum, cinnamon- and butterscotch-flavored mints — and cards good for free beverages in the cafeteria.
"People that do smoke tend to smoke more when they are stressed, and being in the hospital is certainly stressful for patients and family members, so we have to be sensitive to that," said JoAnn Shea, Tampa General's director of employee health services. "We're not going to preach quitting smoking to families. We're here to support them."
To avoid angry confrontations, officials at St. Joseph's drafted language for security guards to use when they catch a smoker. They suggest gentle admonishments such as, "I'm sorry you can't have a cigarette" and "Is there anything we can do to help you?"
"(We're) trying to make it a soft message, instead of 'Hey, you're not allowed to smoke on this campus. Put that cigarette out, or I'll have you arrested,' " said Vaaler of St. Joseph's, which has printed cards with resources to help people quit.
But the hospitals going smoke-free in 2011 — and sometime this year, University Community Hospital expects to join the list — aren't breaking new ground. They're catching up to what has become a national norm.
By 2008, almost half of U.S. hospitals had adopted smoke-free policies, with more expected to quickly follow suit, according to a study by their accrediting organization, the Joint Commission. That's compared with just 3 percent in 1992.
In Pasco County, all hospitals have been tobacco-free since 2009 through an initiative supported by the local health department. Hospital campuses in Hernando and Citrus counties have also snuffed out smoking.
At Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, completely smoke-free since 2002, patients and visitors accepted the policy once they understood it.
"Everybody's common goal for our patients to heal outweighs any kind of personal desire to smoke," said Kanika Tomalin, a spokeswoman for Bayfront. Added bonus: The hospital has found that not allowing patients to smoke at the hospital is often a first step toward their quitting for good.
In the six months since it banned smoking, St. Petersburg General Hospital has seen a 60 percent increase in the volume of prescriptions written and filled for nicotine replacement therapies for patients. But it has escaped the stress-fueled outbursts that officials so feared during their months-long transition.
"When all is said and done, it's not just hospitals that are going tobacco-free," said Guy Samuel, vice president of human resources. "People are expecting that it's going to happen, and they are not going to rebel against the change."
With a clock by St. Joseph's hospital cafeteria counting down to the second the time remaining until the smoking ban took effect, Patrick Carathanasis earlier this week slipped out for a quick cigarette.
The Tampa man, just released from the hospital for kidney stones, saw good and bad in the new rule. But he won't fight it.
"If you can't smoke, you can't smoke, just like years ago with the restaurants and the businesses," he said. "Everybody's adjusted."
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3322. For more health news, visit www.tampabay.com/health.