Durbin, Collins, Wenstrup, Underwood 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 Brad Wenstrup, D.P.M. (R-OH-02) and Lauren Underwood (D-IL-14), 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 do not smoke.  I care deeply about the health and well-being of every veteran and this bill will help save lives.  I’m glad to help lead this bipartisan, bicameral effort to protect veterans from the deadly consequences of tobacco use and secondhand smoke,” Durbin said.

“Veterans have made countless sacrifices to defend our country, and we must do all that we can to ensure that they receive the quality health care they deserve,” said Collins.  “The focus of VA hospitals should be on promoting the health and wellbeing of the veterans they care for.  Our bipartisan bill would eliminate designated smoking areas at VA facilities across the country, making them entirely smoke-free and protecting the safety of veteran patients.”

“As an Army Reserve doctor, I know that exposing patients to firsthand or secondhand smoke is dangerous, especially when they receive treatment at a VHA facility. Every veteran deserves the best care possible, which includes access to smoke-free hospitals,” said Wenstrup. “I’m proud to lead in this bipartisan, bicameral effort to ensure our VHA facilities are in line with private sector smoke-free standards.”

“Our veterans have put their lives on the line to defend our country. That's why it's critical we work to ensure they receive the highest quality care, including by making VHA facilities smoke-free like so many other hospitals and health centers across Illinois. I'm proud to co-lead this important bipartisan legislation to ensure veterans have access to smoke-free health care facilities and are protected against the dangers of secondhand smoke,” said Underwood.

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 were 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. This legislation provides support for the VHA’s plan to maintain smoke-free facilities, 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 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.

“There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, and protecting everyone’s health is essential, especially our veterans,” said American Lung Association President and CEO Harold Wimmer. “Transitioning Veterans’ Health Administrations to tobacco-free is a critical step to improve our veterans’ health as well as the nurses and doctors who treat them. This step is long overdue, and the American Lung Association looks forward to working with Representatives Wenstrup and Underwood and Senators Durbin and Collins to ensure this legislation becomes law.”