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Gripped by addiction amid search for a cure

Published August 10, 2005

Midmorning on a workday, the employees slip one by one out the back door of the tall beige building where they work. They take a short walk along a path near the parking lot, pulling out packs of Marlboros and Dorals and Kool Ultra Lights as they go.

A woman just coming out sees someone she knows just leaving. "Get back to work," she jokes, smiling. Then she shakes out a cigarette, flicks a lighter, inhales. She sighs, blowing out a plume of blue smoke.

Over the past few decades, we've been educated about the dangers of secondhand smoke. (Your smoking doesn't just hurt you, it could hurt me.) In Florida, we nonsmokers celebrated the indoor workplace smoking ban that took effect in 2003. It meant we could have a salad in a restaurant without breathing in somebody's fumes for a change. Maybe we even gloated a little.

So this is where they go, a loose group of four, five, six people standing outside under a haze of smoke, idly chatting or staring into space or keeping an eye on the clouds overhead threatening rain. They could be any employees of any company in any town in Florida.

Except that this employee smoking area is outside Tampa's H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute, a facility dedicated to preventing, treating and ultimately finding a cure for cancer. These smokers are the people who work there: a woman in hospital scrubs and a pink rubber "fight breast cancer" bracelet, a few guys in natty Moffitt polo shirts, a nurse or two. (They say no doctors join them, though there are jokes about witnessing secret and solitary trips to the parking lot.)

On this morning, the group on smokers' row breaks up and re-forms. Someone borrows a lighter. Somebody else just heard about Peter Jennings, the ABC news anchor who died over the weekend from lung cancer. Sad, someone says.

There are at least 30 who come here, maybe more, they say. And no, it doesn't exactly feel like it's socially acceptable.

"I get dirty looks from various people," says Kurt Salchak, 31, on a break from his job in the business office. "It's kind of like being at an AA class, drunk."

So the question is obvious. How does Moffitt square an employee's right to do what he wants on his break and the clear conflict with the institution's mission?

"It's very, very delicate, because we really want to send a very, very strong message," says Braulio Vicente, vice president for facilities and support services. "Basically what we try to do is put (the employee smoking area) in a kind of remote place, understanding that people are still going to have the desire and the want to do it, but not have it sanctioned by the organization."

Moffitt offers stop-smoking programs, and a 1 percent discount on health insurance to an employee who completes one.

That their workaday lives aren't enough to make the employees quit is a testament to the power of addiction. Moffitt employees routinely work with people in all stages of cancer. Some of what they see is stark and sobering.

Mary Beth Reardon, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer, has seen patients themselves, sometimes pulling their IV poles along, heading outside for a smoke. "That's a strong, strong addiction," she says.

Reardon said banning employee smoking would raise concerns about losing current employees and recruiting new ones. Still, she said, it could eventually happen.

It doesn't look as though that will be any time soon. Vicente says by month's end, Moffitt plans to install a three-sided smoking hut, farther from the building and from people walking to and from the parking lot. The hut will have a ventilation fan, a bench and a light for nighttime smokers.

For now, they will hang around outside the back doors of Moffitt, having a quick smoke. Salchak, like workers outside government buildings and private offices across the state, will brave the dirty looks and the dire statistics.

"I'm the type, you only live once," he says.

Sue Carlton can be reached at

[Last modified August 10, 2005, 00:36:13]

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