Health bosses hope to settle burning issue by installing smoking shelters at James Paget Hospital

Health chiefs admit to 'treading a fine line' by putting up smoking shelters at a Norfolk hospital in a bid to resolve the problems caused by smokers lighting up at its entrance. But the move is one which other hospitals in the region can sympathise. LUCY CLAPHAM reports.

There can be no doubt that smoking is damaging to human health. That argument was won long ago.

So perhaps it is surprising that despite a nationwide ban on smoking in public which came into force in 2007 – and an earlier pledge from health bosses for all hospitals to be smoke-free – lighting up is continuing to cause controversy at the James Paget University Hospital (JPH) in Gorleston.

Smokers can regularly be seen congregating outside the hospital's main entrance in view of no smoking signs and are often asked by staff to move off site.

But the practice has continued and health chiefs have now taken the contentious decision to put up three shelters to accommodate smokers saying they are being 'realistic' about the situation.

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Although the move has been met with opposition from a patient group, health officials throughout the region have sympathised with the drastic decision – and some are even thinking of following suit.

Kirk Lower, director of workforce at the JPH, said the decision to build the shelters was 'regrettable' - as they would sit at odds within the hospital which promotes services to help people quit smoking – but board members were struggling to come up with alternative solutions.

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'We've done pretty much everything we can think of but people still insist on smoking out the front. We cannot resolve the problem. We're dealing with the reality of the situation and the reality is people insist on smoking.

'Whatever we have tried in the past hasn't worked – this is another attempt to manage the problem using something we haven't tried before.'

Mr Lower said by putting up the shelters – two in the car park and the third at the back of the building – the hospital was not 'encouraging or condoning' smoking but officials hoped they would put an end to people congregating at the entrance.

If planning permission is granted the new shelters are expected to be up by July but the JPH will not be the only hospital in the region to have them.

Smokers at Ipswich Hospital in Suffolk have been using a pair of on-site shelters for two months.

Spokesman Jan Ingle said they had helped combat the problems caused by people lighting up at its entrance, and provided more privacy, particularly for patients, in need of a cigarette.

And officials at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King's Lynn have discussed putting up shelters but a final decision has not been made.

Richard Humphries, spokesman for the Queen Elizabeth, said: 'We've had a smoking ban here for some years, as with most other trusts, but have found it's pretty much unenforceable. We haven't got shelters but we're considering it.'

Campaign charity Ash, which works to eliminate the harm caused by tobacco, welcomed the hospital's 'pragmatic' approach to dealing with the problem.

Research manager Amanda Sandford said: 'To ban it completely is what all medical establishments should aspire to but we have to acknowledge smoking is very, very addictive and I think particularly for patients. To suddenly expect them to quit overnight, in what is generally a very stressful situation, I think it's asking an awful lot of people.'

The move by JPH bosses has come under fire however from Norfolk Link, the countywide patient forum, which has said it is not happy with their decision.

But forum chairman Patrick Thompson also recognised the 'very tricky' situation health chiefs were in and thought there were positives in putting up the shelters.

He said: 'Even though we're not happy and against the actual facilities of smoking on site, we have got to work towards improving the situation of getting people away from the front door.

'I think this was the first move and once we get that under way we can monitor it.'

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