UPMC smoking ban to include break time

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Come next July, there will be no more smoke breaks for UPMC's 63,000 employees.

The region's biggest health care system announced Wednesday that its new no-smoking policy would take effect July 1, 2014. UPMC will continue to hire smokers but it will not allow them to smoke during their shifts or their breaks.

That goes for all UPMC and UPMC Health Plan employees, as well as thousands of contractors, volunteers and med school students who are not in the employ of the health system. The policy also forbids snuff, smokeless tobacco -- and even electric cigarettes, which deliver nicotine via water vapor and are used by many as a smoking cessation tool.

"Our patients are best cared for, and both patients and visitors have the best experience, when our employees are at their very healthiest and when the workplace is free of tobacco," said Gregory Peaslee, UPMC's chief human resources officer, in a statement.

In letters to those employees, UPMC hospital presidents said the work shift is defined as "time that is paid, and unpaid breaks, including lunch that is taken on or off campus. ... We realize that this new policy will not be easy for some."

Easy or not, in some ways, this is a natural evolution of UPMC's existing smoking policy, and is common within the industry, too. Hospitals were among the first places to fully ban workplace smoking in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to a no-smoking mandate issued by the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, which regulates and inspects hospitals. Subsequent research showed the bans, put in place to protect the health of patients, also reduced smoking rates among workers.

But in other ways, this is a marked change for UPMC, which has been smoke-free campuswide since 2007. Telling employees what they can do on hospital property is one thing; telling them what they can do when they step outside for a walk is another.

"Nobody wants people smoking in a hospital," said Lewis Maltby, head of the New Jersey-based National Workrights Institute, an advocacy group that descended from the ACLU. But this is "not about smoking. It's about the limits on an employer's ability to control your life."

In most states, he said, such a far-reaching ban would be illegal, since several states have adopted laws preventing employers from regulating legal activities away from work. At least 29 states, plus Washington, D.C., have so-called "lifestyle protection" laws in place, but Pennsylvania isn't one of them.

In other words, in most states, UPMC's policy "would be illegal. And in any state, it's unfair," said Mr. Maltby, who does not smoke.

He and other critics of such away-from-work policies note that if an employer can outlaw smoking on the grounds that it's unhealthy and costly to the company, there's little stopping an employer from next targeting those who drink or those who eat too much ice cream on weekends.

Still, on the spectrum of workplace smoking policies, this one falls somewhere in the middle.

Some places still allow smoking in designated areas, some outlaw smoking altogether on the property, some charge higher insurance premiums for those who smoke or don't participate in workplace wellness programs, and some places (including the Post-Gazette) refuse to hire new employees who are smokers, asking prospective employees to take nicotine tests.

In addition to giving employees a year to prepare, UPMC also plans to make available "a wide array of highly effective resources and support services available through our employee assistance program, so that staff will be able to work through the day without tobacco use," said Timothy Cline, a director at UPMC Health Plan.

UPMC was mum on potential punishments and reporting methods, but said, "Violations will be reported to a UPMC supervisor, [who] will then attempt to resolve the problem, and progressive corrective action will be used."

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Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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