Durbin, Collins, Underwood, Wenstrup Introduce Bipartisan, Bicameral Bill To Make The VA Smoke-Free

WASHINGTON — U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) and U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), along with U.S. Representatives Lauren Underwood (D-IL-14) and Brad Wenstrup, D.P.M. (R-OH-02) today introduced bipartisan, bicameral legislation to prohibit smoking at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  The legislation would repeal an antiquated 1992 law that requires the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) to furnish and maintain designated indoor or outdoor smoking areas.  Supported by the VA, the bill would bring the Department in line with smoke-free policies across the federal government and in the private health care system.  

“The majority of veterans treated by the VA health care system do not smoke.  We shouldn’t expose them to secondhand smoke when they are attending a doctor’s appointment,” said Durbin.  “I care deeply about the health and well-being of our veterans, and this bill will help save lives.  I’m leading this bipartisan, bicameral effort to protect veterans from the deadly consequences of tobacco use and secondhand smoke.” 

“Veterans have made countless sacrifices serving our country, and we must do all that we can to ensure that they receive the quality health care they have earned,” said Collins.  “The focus of VA hospitals should be promoting the health and wellbeing of the veterans they care for.  By making VA facilities across the country entirely smoke-free, this bipartisan bill would further protect the health of veterans who rely on the VA for care.”

“Our veterans have sacrificed so much for our country, and they deserve to receive the highest quality care,” said Underwood. “That's why it's critical that we make VHA facilities smoke-free like so many other hospitals and health centers across Illinois. I'm proud to help introduce this important, bipartisan legislation and ensure veterans are protected against the dangers of secondhand smoke.” 

"Those who served and sacrificed for our country deserve access to the best possible healthcare. Our veterans should receive the same considerations and treatment in the VA that they would in the private sector. Requiring that VHA facilities become 100 percent smoke-free helps bring VHA standards on par with private sector facilities and better protects the health and well-being of our nation’s heroes and the healthcare workers who care for them. It’s time that Congress change federal law to protect veteran patients and maintain the same smoke-free standard already in place at private hospitals," said Wenstrup.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States—killing more than 480,000 people annually—and there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke.  As such, the overwhelming majority of America’s private health care systems and facilities, most Department of Defense medical facilities, and all federal government buildings, are smoke-free.  Yet until 2019, there were nearly 1,000 designated indoor or outdoor smoking spaces at VHA facilities across the country—at least one in every state.  In addition to the health concerns, such spaces are difficult to maintain and cost the VA more than $1.2 million annually.  

According to the VA, only 20 percent of veterans enrolled in the VA health care system are smokers.  In 2019, the VA rightly determined that continuing to provide smoke areas on VHA property was not sustainable, and issued VHA Directive 1085 to institute a smoke-free policy beginning October 1, 2019.  However, Congressional action is still necessary to repeal the 1992 law and codify VA efforts. 

According to the Congressional Budget Office, this effort would not impact spending and would save the VA money in the long run.

Along with Durbin and Collins, the bill is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Patty Murray (D-WA), Jack Reed (D-RI), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Tim Kaine (D-VA).  

Today’s legislation is supported by the VA and more than 50 public health organizations, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, and the American Cancer Society Action Network.  

“The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids strongly supports the bipartisan legislation introduced by Reps. Wenstrup and Underwood and Sens. Durbin and Collins to make VHA facilities smoke-free. This legislation rightly recognizes that veterans should not be subjected to harmful secondhand smoke in order to receive medical care. It gives the force of law to the VHA’s directive making VHA facilities smoke-free and will help protect the health of current and future generations of veterans,” said Matthew L. Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. 

“We have a responsibility as a nation to protect the health of our veterans, and ensuring that the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) system is smoke-free is an essential step in supporting veterans’ long-term health. The VHA already plays an important role in providing cessation treatment to its patients and this legislation will enhance support for the VHA’s plan to maintain smoke-free facilities. The bill will ensure current and future generations of veterans are protected from the risks of secondhand smoke when they seek care at a VHA facility. We are grateful to Representatives Wenstrup and Underwood and Senators Durbin and Collins for their leadership on this important issue,” said Mark Schoeberl, Executive Vice President of Advocacy for the American Heart Association.

“Everyone deserves to breathe clean, smokefree air, and this is especially true for our nation’s veterans and their healthcare providers. Making all Veterans’ Health Administrations smokefree is a critical step to improve our veterans’ health as well as the nurses, doctors and others who take care of them,” said American Lung Association President and CEO Harold Wimmer. “The American Lung Association has long advocated for tobacco-free policies, and this step for the VHA is long overdue. Thank you to Senators Durbin and Collins and Representatives Wenstrup and Underwood for introducing this important legislation.”