Starting New Year's Day, Altoona Regional Health System will not hire tobacco users nor allow tobacco use anywhere on its properties.
The hospital board approved the policy change as part of a "comprehensive approach to health and wellness" - given the damage inflicted by tobacco to users and through secondhand smoke even to non-users, according to the hospital.
In adopting the policy, the hospital is hardly "a pioneer," as 70 hospitals in Pennsylvania and many others throughout the nation have already adopted similar measures, officials said.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Employees take a break in the smoking hut on top of the parking garage at Altoona Regional.
The hiring prohibition will rely on a one-time pre-employment screening for nicotine - though applicants who fail can apply again after 90 days. Continued tobacco abstinence would be an expectation for new employees, though not a condition of employment. Current employees who use tobacco can do so off hospital property, although the hospital will offer tobacco cessation courses.
The tobacco-on-campus prohibition includes a ban using in vehicles in hospital parking lots - not only by employees, but also by doctors, contractors and visitors, even on leased property. Users can still smoke during their shifts, but they'll need to punch out and go off campus, CEO Jerry Murray said Thursday.
Violators will be subject to the standard "progressive discipline," which can eventually lead to dismissal, and hospital police will do the enforcement, hospital spokesman Dave Cuzzolina said.
Some smokers are welcoming the change "as an impetus to quit," Cuzzolina said.
Long-time X-ray department employee Sondi Ocker - a long-time smoker - is not.
"I'm now a second-class citizen," she said.
She doesn't have a problem complying with the current policy of smoking in designated areas outside the hospital.
But this goes too far, she said.
"People always want to try to control people," she said. "It's supposed to be the land of the free."
And tobacco is legal, she pointed out.
She should be allowed at least to smoke in her car in the parking lot, she said.
She estimated that about 30 percent of hospital employees use tobacco, and some are "desperately trying to find a loophole," she said.
She's tried to quit four times and has managed to last a couple weeks.
But she gets "irritable, jittery, nasty."
"I'm a nicotine addict," she said.
Many smokers at the hospital feel too embarrassed or guilty to speak up, she said.
"I don't feel guilty," she said.
Conemaugh Health System adopted a policy similar to Altoona's in 2005.
The hospital preceded the ban with "a lot of education," and there wasn't much backlash, spokeswoman Amy Bradley said.
By now, "people are used to not being able to smoke on hospital property," she said.
In January, however, the hospital is tightening the policy further by not permitting employees to smoke at all during their shifts - not even off-campus during breaks, Bradley said.
That should help eliminate complaints from patients about staffers "coming back in smelling like smoke."
There's been little negative feedback on the change, she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union doesn't object to employers prohibiting tobacco use on their properties.
But it's uncomfortable with non-governmental agencies like hospitals seeking to go beyond that.
Not hiring smokers is legal, because most will become "at will" employees, subject to any conditions imposed by employers, "so long as [they don't] violate fair labor and non-discrimination laws," said Philadelphia-based ACLU lawyer Mary Catherine Roper in an article provided by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, when contacted Thursday by the Mirror.
"But it's also not a good idea," Roper stated. "[It] gives employers a lot of legal leeway, and, especially in a bad economy, a lot of economic leverage to demand that employees give up control of their lives, off the job as well as on."
Pennsylvania is not one of the 30 states (including Washington, D.C.) that have laws prohibiting discrimination against smokers, Cuzzolina said. There is a "rapidly growing list" of fully smokefree hospitals, according to the Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights website.
If Ocker had it to do over, she wouldn't have started to smoke.
"Not really because of the health hazards, but because it is so socially unacceptable," she said. "I feel like a leper."