Yellowknife’s hospital quietly ends ‘100% tobacco free’ policy
Yellowknife’s Stanton Territorial Hospital has abandoned a decade-old policy that banned smoking on all hospital grounds.
The hospital’s “100-percent tobacco free” policy was introduced on Valentine’s Day in 2012 to significant fanfare, barring patients, staff and visitors from smoking anywhere on hospital property, including the parking lot.
The policy sent “a clear message that tobacco use has no place in an institution dedicated to healing,” then-chief executive Kay Lewis was quoted as saying in a territorial government press release.
The initiative won a Premier’s Award for Excellence from Bob McLeod for 14 members of health authority staff who helped to introduce it.
However, one person involved in rolling out the policy contacted Cabin Radio last week after noticing the hospital – which has moved from its old facility to a neighbouring building since 2012 – now has a “designated smoking area” outside its emergency department.
“So sad to see they are going backwards,” the person wrote.
A spokesperson for the NWT’s health authority confirmed by email that the 100-percent tobacco free policy was “formally rescinded” in December last year.
While former boss Lewis had called the policy a “move in the right direction” in 2012, the health authority now says it wants to “shift toward a more patient-centric and harm-reduction smoking management approach on the Stanton campus.”
Spokesperson David Maguire wrote: “Smoking on the Stanton campus has long been a contentious issue. Obviously, most non-smokers would prefer no smoking on the site at all, and those who do smoke have found the policy of an entirely tobacco-free campus difficult for a variety of reasons.”
Maguire said some people with mobility issues had been “travelling quite a distance to get off campus” to smoke, which “presented safety risks and a significant burden to these individuals, as well as staff members who sometimes must accompany them or are smokers themselves.”
The health authority has decided that “adding barriers … does not stop people from smoking,” Maguire wrote, a markedly different approach than the one used in 2012, when the hospital said it had a “responsibility to encourage a culture of healthy living.”
Quitting ‘may not be patients’ priority’
At the time, the NWT government said it would offer nicotine patches, gum and inhalers to anyone struggling to quit and finding the policy hard.
“Nobody ever died from nicotine withdrawal. At least we can keep them comfortable while they’re in here,” Dr Bing Guthrie was quoted as saying by the CBC that year.
In his email, Maguire said the health authority now felt that patients’ “readiness to stop smoking may not be their priority during their visit and may actually hamper their healing and recovery.”
He said the new smoking area met WSCC regulations and city bylaws, and that anyone smoking too close to the hospital’s entrances would be asked to move to the new area instead.
Meanwhile, the health authority says it will re-examine how smoking is allowed across the entirety of the Stanton campus as the old hospital building – which is being transformed into a long-term care and extended care facility – prepares to open.
Maguire said that would involve “looking at measures to mitigate the impact on non-smokers while also ensuring those who choose to smoke are safe while doing so.”
In practice, that is expected to mean more designated smoking areas, signage, and potentially a smoking shelter.
Data about smoking in the NWT is only intermittently collected. A territorial survey in 2006 found that 41 percent of respondents aged 15 and up considered themselves to be current smokers, while another 25 percent called themselves former smokers.
By 2018, the same survey reported that the figure for current smokers had dropped to 33 percent, with 22 percent of respondents saying they were former smokers.
Thirty-five percent of respondents in 2006 said they had never smoked. That had increased to 45 percent by 2018.