MARSHALLTOWN — Some who live in Iowa’s only state-run care facility specifically for veterans and their spouses are complaining about a recently enacted Veteran Affairs policy that sharply restricts smoking despite the military’s history of providing free cigarettes to servicemen.
Iowa Veterans Home Commandant Timon Oujiri, a retired Army colonel from Cedar Rapids, said the policy limits where residents at the home can smoke.
“The VA completed their annual inspection of our facility and informed us of a new smoking policy to be implemented immediately,” Oujiri said.
Procedures were put in place at once, he said, to ensure safety of the residents who smoke, as well as the safety of other residents and staff.
The new policy at the home specifies:
• Smoking is not permitted by residents in any facility building, entrance, hallway, restroom, public area or where oxygen is used or stored, with some exceptions. Those are smoking rooms located on the Malloy Hall main floor, Dack Hall main floor and Heinz Hall first floor north lounge.
• Unsupervised outdoor smoking is allowed for Heinz Hall residents at the bottom of the main entrance ramp.
• Residents must independently get to the smoking areas. Staff will not escort them.
• Oxygen equipment must be turned off and removed to a distance of a least 10 feet away from a smoking area.
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• Residents who smoke must sign a “Safety Expectations for Resident Smoking” form upon admission, and with any incident identified.
In general, smoking for the home’s staff and residents is not allowed while in any state vehicle, on medical trips or on recreation trips. Smokers are required to clean up their own litter.
Oujiri said he knows the rules have bothered some of the smokers on campus, but said the measures were implemented with safety in mind. The policy also says trained staff will assist smokers with smoking reduction and cessation efforts.
State Rep. Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, a longtime Iowa Veterans Home volunteer and Veteran Affairs advocate, said he has received several calls from World War II and Vietnam War veterans who do not agree with the policy.
“They see it as a right to smoke and something a lot of them started in the service,” Smith said. “This (new policy) was put forth by the United States Veterans Administration and I do not have any mechanism in which to change it.”
Some WW II and Vietnam War veterans were given free cigarettes during those conflicts, and subsequently developed smoking habits. For them, the nicotine addiction continued into civilian life.
The VA allocates a substantial amount of federal funds annually to the Iowa Veterans Home for construction and maintenance, resident care and other initiatives. VA guidelines indicate the new policy applies to all VA facilities nationwide — not just the Marshalltown home.
For example, a May letter from Judith Johnson-Mekota, director of the Iowa City VA Health Care System, said the organization “has a strong commitment to protecting and promoting the health and safety of patients, visitors, contractors, vendors and volunteers.”
“The Surgeon General Reports of 2006, 2010 and 2014 concluded cigarette smoking is the number one preventable cause of illness/disease and premature death worldwide. Studies have shown the harmful effects of smoking extend to co-workers and members of the public exposed to second-hand smoke. These reports indicate there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke. There are also new studies that show risks to those exposed to thirdhand smoke.
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“Therefore, the Iowa City VA Health Care System will transition to a smoke-free campus by July 1, 2019. This will include cigars, cigarettes, pipes and any other combustion of tobacco and non-Federal Drug Administration approved nicotine delivery system, including but not limited to electronic or e-cigarettes, vape-pens or e-cigars.”
The Iowa Veterans Home is one of the largest state veteran homes in the United States. The facility is licensed for 113 beds for residential care and 474 beds for nursing level care.