Smoking ban at VA facilities has some veterans fuming

Veterans Affairs is set to enact a policy banning smoking at all its medical facilities as part of campaign to improve the health of veterans

CONCORD, N.H. -- Serving up drinks at the American Legion post in Concord, Jeff Holland gets a little testy when the talk turns to smoking.

A Marine veteran who enjoys lighting up, the 44-year-old Holland fought unsuccessfully against a ban at the post that went into effect this month. And starting Tuesday, he will be prohibited from smoking when he visits the nearby Manchester VA Medical Center in New Hampshire.

It is part of a nationwide smoking ban outside all VA medical facilities that applies to visitors, patients and employees.

"I get the aspect that it's a hospital and for all practical purposes you shouldn't be smoking inside the VA," Holland said. "But as far outside, I think they should still have a smoking area. I mean you got guys from World War I, World War II where this is all they have known for 40 or 50 years. To kind of take that right away, it's kind of a shame."

But the move isn't without controversy. A third of veterans smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many were introduced to the habit while serving. Tobacco has long been tied to military: Cigarette ads featured troops, and the culture of the service historically promoted smoking on the battlefield or as a welcome respite from the stress of combat.

"We recognize this is a difficult change for many folks," John D'Adamo, who is co-chairing the smoke-free implementation working group for VA Boston. It is gradually implementing the ban for the 62,000 veterans it serves over the coming months, including providing resources that could help veterans kick the habit. Violators will initially be warned of the policy and eventually VA police will enforce it.

"This is a major cultural change," he continued. "It's really been something often utilized for comradery, essentially a sense of community."

But even a gradual rollout is seen as too stringent for some smokers — and even some veterans who don't smoke. They argue that there should be some place for smoking at VA facilities and fear that some veterans may choose cigarettes or cigars over visiting their VA doctors.

"It's going a little too far," Gregory d'Arbonne, president of the New Hampshire chapter of the Association of the United States Army. "I'm against smoking, but there are people who smoke. When they do, they go outside and have this little smoking area. Now, what are they going to do?"

Jorg Dreusicke, a 72-year-old former smoker from New Hampshire who recruits members for the Veterans of Foreign Wars nationwide, called the move government overreach. He started smoking at the age of 10 and quit three years ago.

"It's big brother telling people how to live," he said. "Some people don't mind because it doesn't affect them. But for those it effects, they are pissed."

He predicted that after a "period of revolt" and much complaining, veterans would eventually return to medical centers.

Others are welcoming the ban, saying it is long overdue.

Tony Botticello, a 76-year-old Coast Guard veteran whose lung cancer is in remission, said he would often pass by smokers in parking lot on the way to his treatment at the Manchester VA. He smoked for over 50 years but quit smoking five years ago.

"It's personal for me," he said. "Maybe this will make somebody think about the ramifications of smoking and how some people find smoking offensive."