Cape Town-120418- The Health Minister has plans for smokers & new laws are to be put into place regarding smoking in public. Reporter: Janis, Photo: Ross Jansen

Having designated smoking rooms in hospitals beggars belief, says Murray Williams.

Cape Town - I was walking down a long corridor, in Vergelegen Mediclinic hospital in Somerset West. Within a few hours I was to meet someone very small, someone very new.

The hospital’s welcome was warm and wonderful, the service excellent, the attentiveness personal, the attention to detail notable. All good.

But as I walked down that corridor, my nose began to twitch.

Smoke. Not “Yikes, the hospital’s on FIRE!” kind of smoke. Cigarette smoke.

Now one smells this in most places from time to time – so what? But a tiny ray of common sense persisted, demanding: “You can’t be serious?”

Indeed. I’d just walked past a “smoking room” – in the midst of numerous wards and theatres where committed medical professionals spend every working day trying to fix, heal or save people.

So I mailed the hospital authorities and asked: Surely you don’t have commercial imperatives to offer these (like restaurants and other “leisure” venues, for example)? As a matter of principle, couldn’t you simply choose to ban smoking, considering how much crippling damage smoking does to individuals and the national health bill?

Their response, received a day later, was: “Mediclinic is committed to addressing the issue of smoking areas at our hospitals, but at present there are certain realities we have to consider when dealing with this matter.

“For instance a number of our patients are nicotine-dependent to the extent that their doctors recommend they continue smoking during their hospitalisation, as to do otherwise could be detrimental to their health. In addition we have to bear the rights of our staff in mind.

“Irrespective of the above, Mediclinic fully complies with the South African legislation in regard to designated smoking areas, and we also have clear policies defining where patients, their visitors and staff may use tobacco products.”

OK, so they’re playing with a straight bat. But having smoking rooms in hospitals still seems to beggar belief. Cigarettes aren’t like wine, for example – responsible, moderate use might even be good for you, even if abusing alcohol kills. By contrast, all cigarettes are all bad, all the time, for all people.

And yet a hospital group is prepared to tacitly say: “We’d like you to enjoy your smoking, so here’s a special facility for you.” Kind – perhaps. Bizarre – completely.

By contrast, the Western Cape Health Department bans smoking in all state health buildings, with demarcated areas outside.

In the UK, by greater contrast, the Telegraph reported in November: “Hospitals have been told to remove smoking shelters and end the terrible spectacle of people on drips in hospital gowns smoking outside by introducing an outright ban on cigarettes.

“Nurses should no longer help patients out of the ward to have a cigarette outside, while staff and visitors should not smoke anywhere on the grounds of a hospital or clinic.

“For too long smoking has been ‘passively encouraged’ and it is ‘clearly absurd’ that the habit, which is the leading cause of premature death in England, is allowed on premises.”

In the US smoking in hospitals was banned way back in 1994.

Some might argue that the UK and US are nanny states. Nah – I think they’re spot on.

In fact, any company – hospital or otherwise – could simply say: “Sorry, smoking kills. We’re banning it on our premises. Don’t like that? That’s OK. We’re taking a stand on principle.”

PS: As for workers’ rights, I presume smoking is banned at other sensitive sites, like petrochemical plants. (BOOM! “Oops, sorry, I was just having a puff.”)


* Murray Williams’s column Shooting from the Lip appears in the Cape Argus every Friday. Follow him on Twitter: @mwdeadline

Cape Argus