A previously announced ban by the Department of Veterans Affairs on smoking at its medical facilities will now apply to employees as well as patients and other visitors, VA officials announced Wednesday.
The VA's "smoke-free" policy at hospitals and clinics, announced June 10, applies to patients, visitors, volunteers, contractors and vendors and will go into effect Oct. 1.
It bars non-employees from using cigarettes, cigars, pipes, e-cigarettes and vaping devices at VA medical campuses.
But employees were exempt from the policy, based on an agreement between the VA and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union that represents VA workers, allowing them to continue lighting up in designated smoking areas.
The original exception prompted lawmakers, led by Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, an Army Reserve colonel, to introduce legislation to extend the policy to employees.
On Wednesday, however, the VA negated the need for new legislation by announcing it had reached an agreement with AFGE to extend the smoking ban to employees, starting no later than January 2020.
In anticipation of the new policy on employees, the National Veterans Affairs Council of AFGE filed a grievance Aug. 16 against VA for applying the smoking ban to employees in "violation of AFGE's memorandum of understanding with the department."
Union officials are arguing that VA cannot alter the terms of an existing agreement and statements made by VA officials that VA had completed its bargaining obligations with AFGE regarding the ban were "untrue."
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the policy change is "consistent with our mission to promote a healthy environment" at VA facilities.
"It will reduce the harmful effects of smoking, including exposure to second- and third-hand smoke, as well as increase safety and reduce fire hazards caused by smoking," Wilkie said.
In announcing the new policy in June, VA officials said that, although their facilities largely were smoke-free, the existence of designated smoking areas was not compatible with medical requirements and "the scientific evidence ... indicates there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke."
"... There is currently overwhelming evidence that smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke creates significant medical risks and a growing body of evidence that exposure to third-hand smoke creates additional risks to safety and direct patient care," the policy notes.
Third-hand smoke is defined as the residual nicotine and chemicals left by tobacco smoke, which can be inhaled or absorbed by touching contaminated surfaces.
According to a 2018 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly three in 10 military veterans used some kind of tobacco product between 2010 and 2015, and tobacco use among veterans significantly outpaces that among their civilian peers.
The VA offers a number of programs to help veterans quit smoking or using other tobacco and nicotine products. For more information, check out the VA's web page on tobacco and health.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include information about a grievance filed by AFGE.