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Elliot Hospital smoking ban clears air, dirties ground

New Hampshire Union Leader

March 24. 2012 11:37PM
A discarded cigarette butt sits in the grass near a bus stop off of Auburn Street, across the street from Elliot Hospital. (JOSH GIBNEY/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER - Sprinkled throughout the parking lot of Elliot Hospital are signs with reminders that smoking is banned on the hospital grounds out of concern for the health of patients, visitors and employees.

In the neighborhood adjoining that parking lot are several caches of discarded cigarette butts, a tangible reminder that a no-smoking policy at the hospital doesn't mean all smokers have managed to quit.

Elliot officials say they have stepped up enforcement of the ban after hearing complaints from neighbors that smokers who can't smoke on hospital grounds are strolling into the adjoining neighborhoods for a furtive cigarette break.

'I think with the improving weather it's escalated,' said Executive Vice President Richard Phelps. 'I'll be happy to meet with them to get any ideas for a solution.'

The neighbors say when the hospital banned all smoking on its property, several spots became popular hangouts for smokers no longer permitted to indulge their habit at the hospital.

Marilyn Pettigrew lives near the hospital and often walks through and around the Elliot property to appointments or to bring her granddaughter to school. She says the ban has the effect of pushing smokers into the surrounding neighborhood. 'It looks terrible. They come out in their garb, their scrubs, and they are smoking,' shye said.

The Elliot campus is surrounded by other health care facilities, including a complex of medical offices and Greater Manchester Mental Health Center.

'Both my husband and I walk around the area, and there is always tons and tons of cigarette butts all over the ground,' said Cheryl Roth, who lives in the neighborhood and often walks through and around the Elliot campus. 'It makes sense that they don't want people smoking in the hospital.'

Indeed, the no-smoking policy at Elliot was adopted in 2010 after a long period of internal debate, according to Phelps, who is a physician in addition to being the hospital's chief operating officer.

'Once we enacted the policy, we knew that for such a powerful addiction there would be consequences that we would have to manage,' he said. 'Unfortunately, this is one of those unintended consequences.'

Programs to help employees quit the habit were launched when the smoking ban took effect. A discount was offered in the hospital pharmacy for smoking-cessation products.

Phelps says a big impetus for wanting employees to quit was the growing number of complaints that some employees carried the odor of cigarettes while working. 'It was really the complaint of patients that escalated this as it did,' he said.

Pettigrew has complained to Phelps in the past and agrees that he has been receptive to acting on her complaints.

'He tried to educate his people, but its not working, Pettigrew said. 'I said, 'You need to provide a space, it's not fair to push it into my neighborhood, where I walk my grandchildren.''

The neighbors said that when smoking was first banned at the hospital, a shelter near the emergency room was provided for smokers to light up. But the ban was eventually expanded to prohibit smoking on its property entirely.

Phelps, however, says allowing smoking on some areas of the Elliot grounds would mean doing something that is counter to the reason for its existence.

'Our fundamental mission as a health care provider is to promote health and wellness within our community - our patient community, our employer community, our neighbors and our employees,' Phelps said. 'This was really done purely because of the priority of that mission, it seems incongruous for a health care provider not to do everything it can on this topic.'

Nearby residents say they understand that a hospital doesn't want to do anything to encourage smoking, but complain that smokers don't quit, they go just far enough away to avoid lighting up on the hospital grounds.

'The Elliot is pushing their smoking issue out into the neighborhood,' Pettigrew said.'

Phelps said security officers have been told to watch for employees smoking off hospital grounds, and the hospital has developed a progressive disciplinary process for violators. But until the recent complaints from the neighborhood, he said, the security detail had reported that the incidents of employee smoking in the neighborhood had been on the wane.

Residents see irony in a hospital banning smoking on-site only to have people who can't make it through a workday without lighting up turn to residential areas nearby.

'What bothers me the most is that they don't seem to care about the cigarettes being everywhere and that other people need to use that bus stop and other people are walking around and are affected by the smoke,' Roth said.

But Phelps says the hospital's goal is to make sure that a no-smoking policy intended to enhance the health environment of its facility doesn't have the effect of causing health problems for people who live nearby. 'I take full responsibility for minimizing and eliminating the impact on our neighbors,' he said.

Is it 100 percent achievable?

'I don't know the answer to that.'

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