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UPMC workers in business of saving lives, so why harm their own by smoking?

| Saturday, July 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Goodbye, smoke breaks.

UPMC, the region's largest employer, will no longer allow workers to smoke during workdays, starting next summer.

Though UPMC campuses have been smoke-free since 2007, those of us familiar with the hospitals typically see plenty of scrubs-wearing workers puff away on sidewalks and street corners. For an organization that promotes health and healthy behaviors, the sight of smokers can be quite conflicting, not to mention unnerving. I can't imagine what goes through a cancer patient's mind when he or she goes for chemo treatment and has to walk past someone blowing out smoke in the parking lot.

Hats off to UPMC for taking on a policy that's certain to bring backlash. When restaurants began doing away with smoking sections, smokers protested and argued their rights were being trampled. Cigarette lovers still find it offensive they can't light up at some bars.

Hospitals are another story. Their employees have a responsibility to set an example and serve as role models for patients and visitors. How can you take treatment advice from a health care worker who puts away a pack a day and wears clothes that smell like an ashtray?

“We are trying to help people recover from sickness or surgery,” Greg Peaslee, UPMC's chief human resources officer, told me. “Having smoke around them is not conducive to improving their medical condition.”

Will UPMC managers follow smokers around to see if they're sneaking a cigarette? Not quite. But if you're openly smoking where you can be seen, you risk being reprimanded in much the same way you would if you broke another hospital policy. That means written warnings, suspension or getting fired.

Across the nation, some of the top health care systems have pushed the non-smoking envelope a bit further. The Cleveland Clinic, Geisinger Health System, Baylor Health Care System and University of Pennsylvania Health System no longer hire smokers. UPMC won't go that far.

“Were not trying to make a value judgment,” Peaslee said. “We're not saying you're a good person or a bad person by smoking. If you smoke on your own time, and it doesn't impact our patients, why should we ban you from working at UPMC?”

Indeed, a recent piece in The New England Journal of Medicine authored by three ethicists questioned the ethics of not hiring smokers. The authors argued that many hospital patients are treated for illnesses caused by their behavior, including smoking. In other words, they wouldn't just refuse to treat them simply because their smoking caused them to get sick.

Such an argument is fair but disregards a key issue — that hiring policies often send strong signals to those seeking employment. We've known for some time that smoking rates are higher among those who are poor and less educated. One could argue that a no-smokers hiring policy would unfairly target them. But wouldn't it motivate them to quit smoking so they can get the job they need?

UPMC vowed to offer smoking cessation sessions to help employees who want it. They should take the offer. I can't imagine why anyone would want to work in a place that's saving lives when they're harming their own.

Luis Fábregas is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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