FARGO — Veterans and others coming to the Fargo Veterans Affairs (VA) Health Care System can no longer light up on the property.

Smoking is now banned at the Fargo VA campus and its community-based outpatient clinics. The ban applies to patients, visitors, contractors, volunteers and vendors, due to the adverse health effects of exposure to secondhand and thirdhand smoke, according to VA officials.

The ban includes cigarettes, cigars, pipes and electronic devices such as e-cigarettes. The Fargo VA went a step further to also prohibit spit or chew tobacco.

Under a national directive, VA medical centers must adopt the change by Oct. 1, but Fargo’s campus did so earlier, on May 30, a day before the World Health Organization’s World No Tobacco Day.

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A smoking shelter for veterans and others near the main entrance on the north side of the Fargo VA is now closed, and an orange cone sits in front of the locked door.

Dr. Breton Weintraub, Fargo VA chief of staff, said the move is based on tobacco being the No. 1 cause of death in the country, contributing to heart disease, cancer and other illnesses.

“There’s really no safe level of secondhand exposure, so anyone being exposed passively is at risk,” Weintraub said.

However, the smoking ban does not apply to Fargo VA staff — at least not yet.

Rachel Mustachia, the VA's occupational health and wellness manager, said negotiations related to staff who smoke are ongoing with two employee unions, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE).

“We do need to collaborate with them, and we do need to have an agreement between what they fear, as well as what they would like to see happen,” Mustachia said.

An employee smoking shelter, on the building’s south side, remains open but is expected to close after an agreement with the unions is reached.

Veterans' reaction

A few months back, a committee informed veterans and employees about the upcoming smoking ban.

Under a previous VA directive, nicotine replacement therapy, including lozenges, gum and patches, must be routinely prescribed for inpatients who smoke, to prevent nicotine withdrawal.

The same is true for outpatients, who must also be notified prior to arrival that the VA facility is smoke-free. Mustachia said the new directive has generally been well-received by veterans.

However, two veterans The Forum caught up with on campus said they think the ban may go a little too far.

Jerry Johnson of Fargo, an Army veteran, had just left a yoga class as part of the VA’s Whole Health program. Though he’s never been a smoker, he said he doesn’t have a problem with people smoking outdoors, away from the building.

“If they want to have a smoke now and then, I don’t see the big deal,” Johnson said.

Phillip Lohman of Fargo, who served in the Air Force, was at the VA for chiropractic treatment for back pain. A smoker for 35 years, he said he quit "cold turkey" several years ago.

Even though tobacco smoke bothers him more now than it did before, he doesn’t see harm in keeping the shelter open. “It’s their right to smoke, just as long as I don’t have to inhale it,” Lohman said.

Something 'healthy' in its place

A relationship between the federal government and the tobacco industry dates way back.

During World War I, before the harmful effects of tobacco were known, the military supported efforts to distribute cigarettes to troops as a way of boosting morale.

Mustachia said the relationship today is a “complete turnaround” from then. “Just because it was done then doesn’t mean it was right,” she said.

Mustachia is working diligently on smoking cessation programs. She’s hoping to convince more employees to quit smoking, especially before the ban affecting them takes hold.

She’s posted signs in the smoking shelter, directing staff to the VA’s WIN by Quitting, a 12-week program that’s free to employees. She expects a “huge spike” in participation once an agreement with the unions is reached.

The now-closed smoking shelter for vets and visitors will be repurposed.

The VA plans to put “something healthy” in its place, Mustachia said, perhaps a bike rack for people who choose to pedal to the campus.