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

WASHINGTON — U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Susan Collins (R-ME), along with U.S. Representatives Brad Wenstrup, D.P.M. (R-OH-02) and Kathleen Rice (D-NY-04), 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 vast majority of veterans enrolled in the VA health care system are non-smokers.  I care deeply about the health and well-being of every veteran, and our bill ensures that those at our VHA facilities are protected from the deadly consequences of tobacco use and secondhand smoke,” Durbin said.  “This bill will help save the lives of some of America’s heroes.”

“Veterans have made countless sacrifices to defend our country, and we must do all that we can to ensure that they receive the health care they deserve,” said Collins.  “The focus of VA hospitals should be on promoting the health and wellbeing of the veterans it cares for.  Our bipartisan bill would support the VA’s new policy that eliminates designated smoking areas at its facilities, making them entirely smoke-free.”

“As an Army Reserve doctor, I know that permitting or exposing patients to firsthand and secondhand smoke is dangerous, especially while they undergo treatment at VHA facilities. I applaud VA Secretary Wilkie for making the long-overdue policy change to make VHA facilities smoke-free. It’s time that Congress change federal law to protect veteran patients and catch up with the smoke-free standard already in place at private hospitals,” said Wenstrup.

“Our nation’s veterans put their lives on the line to defend our country and our freedom,” said Rice. “They have risked enough, and when they return home, they deserve the highest quality care. No veteran should ever have to walk into a VA facility and worry about the deadly effects of secondhand smoke. I’m proud to cosponsor this bill, which would eliminate these antiquated smoking areas and help provide veterans with the safe and supportive healthcare facilities they need.” 

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 there are 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.  The VA recently determined that continuing to provide smoke areas on VHA property was not sustainable, and issued VHA Directive 1085 to institute a smoke-free policy by October 1, 2019.  However, Congressional action is still necessary to repeal the 1992 law and codify VA efforts. 

According 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 Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ed Markey (D-MA), Jack Reed (D-RI), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Patty Murray (D-WA), Tom Carper (D-DE), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Mazie Hirono (D-HI).

Today’s legislation is supported by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Society of Thoracic Surgeons, and more than two dozen additional medical and public health organizations.  

“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. This legislation provides support for the VHA’s plan to make all of its facilities smoke-free by Oct. 1, and it ensures 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 Rice 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.

“The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network commends Representatives Wenstrup and Rice and Senators Durbin and Collins for introducing legislation that would allow our nation’s veterans to breathe smoke-free air at health facilities managed by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Eliminating designating smoking areas in DVA-managed facilities will ensure thousands of veterans avoid exposure to the dangers of secondhand smoke while seeking the care they need. The legislation also guarantees physicians, nurses, volunteers and visitors would also be working in, or visiting, a smoke-free environment.”

“Everyone deserves to be protected from the dangers of secondhand smoke, but especially our veterans and the doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals who treat them,” said Harold P. Wimmer, National President and CEO of the American Lung Association.  “Making Veterans’ Health Administrations tobacco free will improve our veterans’ health and is long overdue.  The American Lung Association looks forward to working with Representatives Wenstrup and Rice and Senators Durbin and Collins to ensure this legislation becomes law.”

“The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids strongly supports the bipartisan legislation introduced by Reps. Wenstrup and Rice 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 new 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.