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Butt Busters

VCU Health System sends the cigarette police to smoke out offenders — and their sanity.



On a bright Friday afternoon in September, three office workers huddle on the eastern side of the Patrick Henry state government building — exiles across Broad Street, the southern boundary of Virginia Commonwealth University's controversial smoke-free zone.

“Most of us just cope and go somewhere else,” one woman says.

She and her friends decline to give their names for fear of reprisals — they work for VCU Medical Center — but say they've been courted by their employer to quit with a battery of free nicotine lozenges, patches and prescriptions for the quitting pill Chantix. Patients and their families also can get goodies.

“They're called quit kits,” says one woman, taking out another Marlboro Light.

In the wake of VCU's medical campus smoking ban adopted June 30, smokers still are lighting up — some huddled just outside the hospital's no-drag lines, others, mostly loners, puffing on stalwartly inside them.

The rule prohibits smoking by hospital patients, staff, visitors and wayward pedestrians across an outdoor swathe running east from North 10th Street to Interstate 95 and north from East Broad Street to the interstate. The ban covers building entrances, city sidewalks and streets close to the medical center — basically, anywhere near hospital access, says VCU spokeswoman Pam Lepley.

The university is deadly serious about smoking, even encouraging employees to confront offenders.

 “I'm not doing it,” says one of the Broad Street exiles.

“I'm not telling anybody,” her friend echoes.

One woman says she's heard the only place folks can still light up within the ban zone is the Museum of the Confederacy. Not so fast, says her friend: “Some people were caught there by the smoking police” at the museum, she says. “And they took pictures.”

Just around the corner from the hospital's emergency entrance at 12th and East Clay streets — previously a smoke shed, now a cacophony of ban signs — a young couple smokes Newports on a stone stoop in front of the White House of the Confederacy.

“Oh, so we can smoke here?” a female patient approaching the young couple asks. 

“You can't do it right here no more!” a voice suddenly interjects. All eyes fall on Delrae Starkes, a sprightly, uniformed 31-year-old in a gray button-down shirt and black Dickies pants, with badges on his sleeves and front that say “Lew Associates Security.”

“Don't feel bad,” Starkes says. The inquiring patient shuffles away, but Starkes hands the young couple a sky-blue card with a number and more information about the smoking policy.

“Call it. Trust me. They'll tell you,” Starkes says. If the couple still wants to smoke now, they'll have to walk to 12th and East Leigh streets.

If they walk only halfway, Starkes warns, “I'm still gon' see you.”

Another woman emerges from the hospital for a drag. Starkes springs to action.

“God damn!” the woman yells after she learns about the rule.

“It's basically nonconfrontational,” Starkes says of his mediation style. “They have to extinguish their cigarette or either move off the property.”

Starkes says the smoking police work in shifts five days a week, increasing enforcement in the early afternoon. He says familiar offenders try to outmaneuver officers by walking different routes and claims that smoking security has taken photographs of hospital employees caught offending — although he says that he personally has not taken any photos of offenders and that the practice has stopped recently.

“They run,” he says. “They know they in the wrong.”

“We have not detained or cited anyone and we do not take photographs of violators,” writes VCU spokeswoman Anne Buckley in an e-mail to Style Weekly. Buckley writes that the smoking security officers have been “hired temporarily … to remind visitors” as part of a “soft enforcement approach.”

Hospital employees who violate the policy face the same sanctions they would for breaking any other hospital rule, meaning that smoking in the wrong place could ultimately lead to firing. And even if smokers — 14 percent of the medical center's employees, VCU told the Richmond-Times Dispatch in May — choose to go elsewhere, Lepley says “they're going to have to figure out a way to get [lingering smoke] off their person before they come into work.”

 VCU Medical Center is the last major hospital in the metro region to ban outdoor smoking on its campus. BonSecours' St. Mary's, St. Francis, Richmond Community and Memorial Regional hospitals and the HCA-owned Henrico Doctors' on Forest Avenue, Retreat and Chippenham Johnston-Willis all banned campus smoking between 2008 and 2009.

Nationwide, campus-wide hospital smoking bans are “becoming the norm,” says Thomas Carr, manager of national policy for the American Lung Association.

Unlike other area hospitals, however, VCU Medical Center is an urban hospital, its buildings and facilities interwoven with public streets and sidewalks. Banning smoking on public streets and sidewalks would appear to be constitutionally questionable. It isn't, says Richard J. Bonnie, a law professor at the University of Virginia. VCU can adopt “rules and regulations … governing conduct in or on its facilities and surrounding streets, sidewalks and other public areas,” according to the state code, writes Bonnie in an e-mail: “I see no plausible constitutional objections.”

Others, meanwhile, are following VCU's lead.

The Valentine Richmond History Center is supporting the ban, say museum officials, although the its parking lot on North 10th Street still is open to smokers. Large sky-blue smoke-free zone signs have been propped in front of the Valentine buildings to deter the tide of smokers as they retreat from the hospital.

The Museum of the Confederacy was the last rebel standing — it just recently adopted a smoking ban, on Sept. 1. The museum's large brick patio and garden were once smoking hot spots, and museum staffers say hospital workers were hiding out around the museum following the ban.

“We found was that it was untenable to be the one smoking area in the midst of a nonsmoking area, because all smokers came to our place,” says the museum's executive director, S. Waite Rawls III.

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