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UPMC ban could form habit

| Thursday, July 11, 2013, 11:51 p.m.

Quitting smoking is easy. All smokers eventually do it.

Admittedly, some give up cigarettes sooner than others. But even those who wait until their caskets are closed eventually have the opportunity to brag about kicking the habit, though obviously not to a sizable demographic.

That's just one reason why UPMC's heavy-handed attempt to ban smoking among its employees, even during workday breaks, is wrong. The policy, which the monolithic medical conglomerate plans to implement next year, is absurdly intrusive, a chilling example of corporate totalitarianism and utterly indefensible.

UPMC has prohibited smoking on its campuses since 2007, and that policy is above reproach. One of the last sights someone facing a serious cardiothoracic procedure wants to see before going under anesthesia is the surgeon pulling aside his mask to take a quick puff on a Pall Mall.

(The last sight probably would be the surgeon picking up the scalpel he dropped on the floor while downing a shot of bourbon. That's especially true if the surgeon tells the scrub nurse, “Aw, we don't have to disinfect this again. Five-second rule, right?” But I digress.)

The new policy isn't about UPMC restricting ashtrays in the operating room. It's about UPMC telling its surgeons, staffers and volunteers that they can't smoke during the day, even if they leave a UPMC facility — even if they only want to furtively fire up a cigarette beside the Dumpster behind an animal shelter.

In a letter to its workers, UPMC said smoking will be banned for the entire workday, which includes lunch and unpaid breaks taken on or off a UPMC site. That's probably disturbing news to UPMC's Oakland workers, especially those who were convinced they were on their own time during recent lunch hours they spent perusing adult magazines at Gus Miller's Newsstand.

UPMC has not said how it plans to enforce such a nearly unenforceable ban, particularly with employees who take breaks away from its smoke-free facilities. Presumably, the health system will use surveillance teams similar to the infamous smoke squads that once swarmed through World War II-era Germany. That occurred when cigarettes were rationed and Hitler decreed that only top Nazi officials could consume the nation's leading brand, Lucky Reich.

In similarly fascist fashion, UPMC has threatened that repeat violators of the policy could face termination. People could be fired for engaging in an unhealthy but entirely legal activity, on their lunch breaks, perhaps blocks removed from the workplace.

This policy is as invasive to smokers as open-heart surgery. Before going under the knife and having their personal freedom removed next year, UPMC employees should seek a second opinion on its legality. If UPMC can get away with this anti-smoking measure, you can bet it's mulling further restrictions on workers' habits.

You can bet a Big Mac ban is on deck.

Eric Heyl is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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