Hospital smoking ban is spreading

For years, Tim Sacco endured gibes from co-workers in the radiation oncology unit. How could a man who witnessed the malignant effects of tobacco continue to suck into his lungs all those toxic chemicals?

He'd tried to quit: going cold turkey, hypnosis, acupuncture, even laser treatments to his earlobes and fingertips. It wasn't until his employer, Kaiser Permanente, banished smokers from its Sacramento-area campuses in February that Sacco kicked the habit, hopefully for good.

"By doing what they did, having an environment here that is smoke-free, it gave me one more reason to try to quit," said Sacco, who works helping deliver radiation to stop tumor growth.

On Oct. 1, Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento, will make the same sweeping changes at its two hospitals, psychiatric center and skilled nursing facility.

UC Davis Medical Center will follow suit, making its 143-acre campus smoke-free July 1, 2008.

Years in the planning, Sutter's move will force employees, visitors and patients into cars, onto sidewalks or other off-campus venues if they want to light up. Sutter also will provide low-cost smoking cessation classes open to all.

The shift represents a sea change from hospital environments of decades past.

"When I started working in hospitals in the 1980s, we used to sell cigarettes in the gift shop," said Jan Emerson, spokeswoman for the California Hospital Association. "It's been an evolution."

Sutter Health officials insist that the prohibition is not an attempt to wag a finger at tobacco users.

"We aren't preventing anyone from choosing to smoke, but we aren't providing a location on our campus, because it's contrary to our mission," said Ekeshia Pittman, Sutter's smoking cessation program coordinator.

But some at Sutter General Hospital this week might disagree.

Jill Allcock, a registered nurse, says she thinks the move is oppressive. During work breaks, she sits just outside the hospital's entrance and enjoys her Harry Potter novel, Rockstar Energy Drink and spicy Indonesian cigarettes.

"We work our butts off upstairs, and this is where I come to escape," she said. "For people to 'tough-love' you, it's just not their right."

The 41-year-old said that starting next week, she'll have to go out to her car in a garage across the street for her tobacco fix.

"I plan on quitting smoking," she conceded, "but it's an addiction and very difficult to stop."

Sutter-affiliated Memorial Medical Center in Modesto has formed a task force to discuss a smoke-free medical campus, said spokeswoman Catherine Larsen. The hospital and related facilities occupy a campus at Briggsmore Avenue and Coffee Road.

Larsen had no estimate on when the task force will come up with a recommendation.

"We realized the overwhelming statistics on the harmful effects of smoking," Larsen said, adding that a smoke-free environment would ensure that patients and staff are not exposed to tobacco fumes.

Hospital employees and visitors wanting to light up are directed to a designated smoking area outside the hospital. Smoking areas are also outside nearby offices on Coffee Road and Celeste Drive. The smoking areas are at least 30 feet from building entrances, Larsen said.

Sutter Gould Medical Foundation has maintained a no- smoking policy for several years, said Craig Baize, a spokesman for the physicians group with offices in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. Smoking is not permitted inside its medical offices or within 20 feet of entrances. Some of Sutter Gould's medical offices have designated outdoor smoking areas more than 20 feet from entrances, he said.

Research has shown that hospital smoking bans can, in fact, induce healthier habits.

A 2000 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that more hospital employees quit smoking after tobacco use was banned than did employees in workplaces where smoking was permitted.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson contributed to this report.