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Neighboring residents of UPMC criticize hospital smoking ban

| Saturday, Aug. 4, 2007, 12:00 p.m.

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, doctors in white coats, nurses in colorful scrubs and wristband-tagged patients step off the hospital grounds to smoke.

Trails of cigarette butts litter street curbs and fill stone planters.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's smoking ban, which took effect July 1, has had an unintended side effect: smokers spilling onto neighboring properties.

"I've noticed a two- or threefold increase in cigarette butts," said Bill Steinhauser, director of facilities and operations for Pitt's School of Dental Medicine. The school borders UPMC Presbyterian hospital in Oakland and its granite benches have turned into popular hangouts for the hospital's displaced smokers.

Pitt is considering expanding its smoking ban, which has prohibited lighting up in its buildings since 1991, to ban smoking within 15 feet of entrances, said Patricia Weiss, a medical librarian at Pitt and chair of the University Senate benefits and welfare committee. But until the ban addresses all outdoor smoking, there's not much the university can do to stop the smokers, she said.

In communities that neighbor UPMC hospitals, some people are taking complaints to the police. Aspinwall police will issue littering citations -- with fines from $10 to $300 -- to UPMC St. Margaret hospital employees caught dropping spent cigarettes on the ground.

"I can appreciate the hospital taking a stand on smoking, but the hospital hired people who are addicted," said Mike Sailsbery, who lives a block from St. Margaret's and has noticed an increase in scrub-wearing smokers. "But I'm taking a wait-and-see approach -- we'll see what happens when it's winter and it's cold."

Greg Peaslee, UPMC's senior vice president for human resources, said the health system asks employees not to smoke on neighboring properties, and it has offered free smoking cessation programs and medications to help employees quit. More than 1,200 employees are participating in the programs, and for every complaint about the ban, he said he receives 10 compliments.

But UPMC can't guarantee that patients and employees will not smoke on Pitt's campus or neighborhoods adjacent to hospitals, Peaslee said.

"It's a free society, as you know, and we have no powers over what people do off our property," he said.

Veronica Harris, who works in housekeeping at UPMC Presbyterian, said the smoking ban forces her to spend half of her 15-minute break walking off hospital grounds.

"I don't understand what was wrong with the smoking huts," Harris said of the small outdoor shelters where employees were allowed to smoke. "It kept the smoking all in one place. Now we're out all over the place."

Steve Green, of Oakmont, was recently admitted to UPMC St. Margaret for kidney stones. The pack-a-day smoker said the hospital stay is stressful enough without having to walk several hundred feet with painful kidney stones in order to smoke.

"I think it's terrible," he said. "There should be designated areas to smoke. This is America."

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