The days of lighting up a cigarette outside a cancer-treatment facility are coming to an end, as Winnipeg hospitals have started enforcing the city's new partial ban on outdoor smoking.
Last year, city council approved an outdoor smoking bylaw that bans tobacco smoking on the grounds of schools and playgrounds, outside the entrances to health-care facilities and city buildings and within 30 metres of outdoor arenas and fields when youths or children are playing organized sports.
In January, Winnipeg hospitals quietly began enforcing the new bylaw by handing out business card-sized reminders that smoking is no longer allowed on hospital grounds or within eight metres of hospital entrances.
Hospital security, however, has also started writing up repeat offenders by handing out triplicate-form warning tickets to offending patients, visitors and staff.
One copy goes to the violator, a second is kept on file by security and the third gets forwarded to the supervisor of the offending staff member, or the ward where the patient resides.
The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority wants to phase in this enforcement in a gradual effort to convince staff, patients and visitors to butt out before City of Winnipeg bylaw-enforcement officers start handing out tickets later this year.
"You can't just go out there and just start handing out fines," said Dr. Michael Routledge, a medical officer of health with the WRHA. "You can't be heavy-handed. This is going to take some time."
Winnipeg hospitals began phasing out smoking in 2004 with a ban on indoor smoking in all health-care facilities. At the time, a series of indoor smoking bans, including the City of Winnipeg's bylaw, led to a noticeable reduction in tobacco use, Routledge said.
Since then, tobacco use has levelled out, he said. But hospitals are still urging patients to butt out in an effort to speed up their recovery times.
To that end, the WRHA joined a city effort to enact a partial outdoor smoking ban that received unanimous support at council in May 2011.
Hospitals are offering patients free nicotine gum and patches as part of an effort to help them quit smoking -- and to prevent them from going outside when they should be resting and recovering indoors.
"We don't want any patients going outside because they think there's nothing else they can do," said Routledge, adding he is not certain whether WRHA employees will have access to free nicotine products as part of efforts to help them quit smoking.
Outside a Sherbrook Avenue entrance to Health Sciences Centre on Friday, hospital patient Henry William Rockwell compared the new bylaw to bovine excrement.
"Someone tried to hand me one of those cards," he said, puffing on a cigarette. But Rockwell said he would be happy to receive free nicotine patches. "I'll take two dozen. I'm going to be out of tobacco soon."
Since the soft launch of the WRHA's enforcement program only began in January, it will take several more weeks or months for Health Sciences Centre officials to determine which are its most troublesome entrances, Routledge said.
The WRHA will then ask city bylaw-enforcement officers to begin handing out tickets, which come with fines that start at $100 and run up to $1,000 for repeat offences.
"We don't expect there to be enforcement outside hospitals 24/7, but there will be enforcement," Routledge said.
WRHA officials have already met with the city about this plan.
The outdoor smoking ban also applies within eight metres of City of Winnipeg workplaces. The city plans to enforce the ban outside its own facilities this spring or summer, but has yet to decide what form that enforcement will take, spokesman Steve West said.
"We're still formulating the program. We're a little reluctant to talk about it until decisions are made," he said.
When the outdoor smoking ban was proposed last year, city officials described it as self-policing, as they expected spectators at recreational fields to tell other spectators to butt out.
City bylaw officers can hand out tickets right now, should members of the public complain.
The city advises the public to politely ask offenders to butt out, but also accepts complaints about public smoking through its 311 service.