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July 26, 2007

UPMC smokers seek haven at Pitt

The new UPMC smoke-free policy is yielding some early health effects in the Oakland area: Some smokers at UPMC are getting a bit more exercise while some Pitt employees are finding their blood pressure on the rise.

UPMC security personnel are enforcing a July 1 ban on smoking on all UPMC-owned or leased property, asking those who light up to put out their cigarettes or smoke somewhere else.

The new policy, aimed at improving health throughout the health care system, has motivated some smokers to trek to the nearest legal spots, often in front of Pitt properties, where there is no prohibition against smoking.

Pitt in 1991 banned smoking inside its buildings and vehicles, but the policy did not address outdoor smoking. Faculty Assembly in June approved a resolution that would ban smoking within 15 feet of main building entrances at Pitt. Senate Council tabled that resolution for the summer, favoring more study by benefits and welfare committee members and chancellor’s representatives.

University Senate benefits and welfare committee chair Pat Weiss said she is awaiting a draft resolution from University administrators to review, which she hopes may be presented at September’s Senate meeting.

Meanwhile, packs of smokers are being spotted on Pitt’s upper campus — ironically outside many buildings that house Pitt’s health-related programs — and in other areas where Pitt and UPMC buildings are in close proximity.

The area outside Victoria Hall, home of Pitt’s nursing school, is among the spots newly favored by expatriate UPMC smokers.

“We want to applaud UPMC for their health-conscious decision in instituting the smoking ban,” said Pitt School of Nursing Dean Jacqueline Dunbar-Jacob. “We would prefer that smokers not use our entrances and sidewalks as smoking sites.”

Salk, Crabtree, Parran and Scaife halls, the Petersen Events Center and the PG parking deck adjoining the Graduate School of Public Health also are seeing increased numbers of smokers milling about outside.

The influx is rankling some University employees who resent the smoke as well as the butts left behind.

Among them is Theresa Piazza, a dental assistant in pediatric dentistry. She hasn’t confronted the smokers in front of Salk Hall, but is hoping dental school administrators will encourage them to go elsewhere. Smokers, including some who apparently cross the street from UPMC offices in the Thomas E. Starzl Biomedical Science Tower, have been congregating on benches near the dental school’s Terrace Street entrances and its bicycle rack alcove.

“I have nothing against the staff at UPMC, but to use our facility now that they have their ruling … it’s just unsightly and it smells,” Piazza said. “We want to be staff-friendly, but let them know that our staff isn’t permitted to smoke in front of the building, so it wouldn’t be right for people from the next building over to do it either.”

It’s not merely a matter of aesthetics, but also a health issue, Piazza said. The dental school emphasizes nonsmoking to its patients in hopes of preventing oral cancers.

“We’re trying to set a good example. It’s hard to do with people dressed in scrubs sitting out front with cigarettes,” she said.

Salk Hall, which also houses Pitt’s pharmacy school, has a designated employee smoking area near the building’s loading dock. Courtesy signs asking people not to smoke are posted at several of the main entrances.

William E. Steinhauser, director of facilities and operations in Pitt’s School of Dental Medicine, has fielded complaints within the dental school, but said in the absence of a Pitt policy, his options are limited.

Pitt limits sign postings, and while existing courtesy signs have been somewhat effective, there is no enforcement mechanism for those who ignore them.

Steinhauser said there has been an increase in smokers’ debris on the sidewalks outside Salk Hall since UPMC’s July 1 ban took effect, forcing Pitt housekeeping staff to clean up outside more frequently. “The front of our building looks like it’s growing cigarette butts,” Steinhauser said.

He’s faced with an unpleasant dilemma: Placing ashtrays outside the building gives the appearance that the school condones smoking; not placing them means the butts end up on the ground. “From the faculty standpoint, the issue is philosophical. From a facilities standpoint, it’s a dirty mess,” Steinhauser said.

Pitt employees aren’t the only ones who dislike the results of UPMC’s new policy. A pair of Children’s Hospital employees in blue scrubs who perched on the curb outside Pitt’s PG parking deck on Monday afternoon said the ban isn’t an inconvenience just for UPMC employees. Nodding toward several smokers wearing hospital visitor ID tags nearby on the DeSoto Street sidewalk, one said, “I feel sorry for the parents” of Children’s Hospital patients.

Labeling the ban “ridiculous,” her companion decried the closing of smoking huts that previously were available outside UPMC facilities. Separating the smokers in the specially designated huts allowed them to indulge while keeping others free from unwanted exposure, she reasoned. “We weren’t bothering anyone,” she said.

UPMC Senior Vice President of Human Resources Gregory Peaslee stated in an email interview that the impact on neighbors was considered when the healthcare system chose to impose the smoking ban.

“There was considerable discussion about this, but we felt we needed to make the change as a health care organization given what we know about the negative public health impacts of second-hand smoke. It’s also important to note that more than 70 percent of medical centers in the United States are smoke-free.”

While feedback predominantly has been positive, smokers understandably are not pleased but are complying with the new policy, Peaslee said.

“We are currently working on this issue and are communicating with our employees about the importance of being a good neighbor.”

University Senate benefits and welfare committee chair Weiss said she hopes the University can draw from UPMC’s experience in making a decision about outdoor smoking on campus.

She said Pitt administrators have expressed legitimate concerns about how to put a smoking ban into effect. “Any policy needs to be thought through thoroughly in terms of the implementation,” she said, adding that enacting a policy entails more than simply posting signs. While some members of the University community favor an outright smoking ban, “it’s realistically hard to implement,” she acknowledged.

An overall ban likely isn’t realistic for such a large and diverse organization as the University, she said.

Given that not everyone will choose to stop smoking, “There needs to be a space for members of the community who are not choosing to do that,” she said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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