Tobacco Use by Medical Professionals: Helping More Become Tobacco Free

Smoking by healthcare workers can still harm patients through residue. Some hospitals and clinics have begun a ban on hiring smokers.

medical worker holding cigarettes

In most cases, medical professionals are the ones urging patients to stop the tobacco habit. They know more than anyone the hazards faced by patients who routinely use tobacco products, especially those who work directly with people suffering from preventable tobacco-related illnesses.

Even with this knowledge, there are some health care workers who continue to use tobacco products themselves. According to the American Journal of Nursing, it is estimated that only 1% of doctors smoke, but in some areas, 8% or more of registered nurses smoke. Mounting concerns by other medical professionals, advocacy groups, and patients have begun to lessen this number significantly. In fact, 2014 reported record lows for tobacco use among RNs. This is a promising start, but more can be done to reduce numbers even further.

Why Nurses Smoke

One thing to remember is that nurses are people. They smoke for the same reasons other people do. Many started smoking before joining the healthcare field and found it difficult to quit after obtaining their educations. Still, others may be former smokers who return to cigarettes in order to cope with a stressful and fast paced work environment, which most nurses certainly face.

As the health dangers of smoking have become more apparent, medical establishments have begun to implement ways nurses and other health workers can quit. This is one reason the number of smoking nurses has decreased, combined with the knowledge of tobacco’s health hazards.

Ethical Concerns of Health Care Professionals Who Smoke

The most glaring ethical concern for healthcare workers who continue to smoke is that they may not be able to adequately counsel their patients on the dangers of tobacco use if they, themselves, continue to use the products they’re warning against. Many patients who see nurses and other members of the hospital staff smoking inaccurately assume that there are healthcare providers who believe cigarettes are not harmful.

While some would argue that what one person does on their “off” time is their own business, the view of seeing a medical professional lighting up could prove detrimental for some patients. For instance, those patients who are struggling to quit themselves may find it more difficult to see that their medical team can’t seem to shake the habit. They may also falsely assume that medical personnel wouldn’t do anything to damage their own health and conclude that smoking might not be as bad as they’re being led to believe. Either thought process could slow down, or even hinder, a patient’s resolve to quit. For those battling serious medical conditions, this could prove harmful to their overall recoveries.

Because medical professionals are bound to protect their patients, some argue that smoking on, or even near, health care campuses is unethical on the part of the smoker.

The health implications for patients may go beyond this, however. It could be argued that so long as no patients actually SEE their provider smoking, no harm can be done. This isn’t always true for several reasons.

The professional will know: Even if the patient never finds out, the medical professional will know. This may create a moral dilemma for some, especially those working with smokers one on one.

Smoke residue can still cause harm: Smoke residue, or third-hand smoke, can still cause some harm to patients and others who come into contact with the smoker. While medical professionals wash their hands repeatedly, there may be no real way to remove all traces of nicotine and tobacco from their clothing or hair after smoke breaks. Chemicals from these substances have been shown to reenter the air several times over.

Even if breaks occur away from the medical campus, this may be of concern to some at-risk patients. For instance, those with lung problems, tobacco related or not, may wish to avoid exposure to third-hand smoke.

Professional Concerns for Smokers in Health Care

Aside from any ethical or moral issues there may also be professional consequences for medical staff who smoke. Many hospitals and other medical facilities have already made policies against hiring smokers. More hospitals may soon follow in their footsteps as the evidence for the dangers of smoking continue to mount.

Several of these bans on smoking go beyond forbidding tobacco use while at work or on breaks. Some employers perform nicotine tests to ensure their employees haven’t used these products within a set time frame. Many hospitals won’t hire anyone who has smoked within a six month period.

As additional employers begin implementing such rules, medical workers who smoke may find it harder to become or stay employed. This is, overall, a positive step for both patients and staff, as they will be exposed to less second-hand and third-hand smoke. It also gives workers more incentive to quit.

Reasons for HealthCare Workers Quit

The benefits of quitting for nurses and other professionals would be three-fold.

Their own health would improve: Smoking causes a host of medical conditions, many of which can be avoided when tobacco products are out of the picture. Quitting reduces the risk of lung cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease, and COPD.

There would be no ethical dilemma: Whether real or self-imposed, any moral or ethical issues dissipate once tobacco products are removed from the picture. The same is true for any potential for health implications due to third-hand smoke.

They can become better advocates: Medical professionals who are also former smokers can become especially successful at aiding patients who wish to quit. Having been there themselves, they can offer tips, tricks, and tools to help their patients not only from the perspective of a medical professional with years of training but also from that of a person who has had their own struggles with tobacco. Perhaps even more importantly, they can serve as a living testimony that those struggles can be successfully overcome.

What You Can Do

There are numerous ways healthcare workers can quit smoking, and the options in terms of stop-smoking aids continues to grow. Doctors and nurses especially may have access to prescription medications which reduce tobacco cravings, which may make quitting easier. Additional aids and tricks are also available, including nicotine patches or gum.

With the right plan and aids in place, combined with their unique knowledge of the dangers of tobacco products, healthcare workers have a head start on success when it comes to quitting the habit for good. The addition of quitting related aids in healthcare insurance plans, and the willingness of doctors to prescribe these aids, will continue to lower the rates of smoking healthcare professionals.  For this reason, coverage for nurses and other medical staff who wish to quit should be made available.

For more motivation to quit smoking once and for all, visit The Real Cost of Smoking.

Read more about the effects cigarette smoke has on the human body at The Effects of Smoking.

There are many ways to immediately reduce the harm of cigarette smoke. Read more about smoking cessation methods here and here.

Published: January 28, 2015


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