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Highland Rivers clinic now smoke-free, tobacco-free environment

Smoking and tobacco use of any kind are now banned from the Highland Rivers Health’s Bartow facility.

On July 1, the clinic on Joe Frank Harris Parkway in Cartersville became a smoke-free and tobacco-free environment that doesn’t allow tobacco use anywhere on its campus, even in the parking lot or in cars.    

“Our contracts with the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities require that our facilities are smoke-free,” said Mike Mullet, community relations director for Highland Rivers. “Almost every health care facility in the community is smoke-free, and many don't allow smoking anywhere on their premises. We've never allowed smoking inside our clinics, but there were designated smoking areas outdoors. Now we've eliminated those, too. There is no smoking or vaping allowed anywhere on our premises, including in cars in our parking lots.”

Highland Rivers did a number of things in the months leading up to the ban to prepare patients, visitors and employees for the transition.

“We wanted to implement the change in a way that gave people adequate notice and provided information about smoking cessation,” Mullet said. “We've had signs in all of our clinics since February saying that we would become smoke- and tobacco-free on July 1 so that individuals who visit our clinics to receive services would be aware. We sent numerous emails to all our employees to prepare them and provided information about smoking-cessation resources.”

Mullet said Highland Rivers has “tried to be considerate of employees who smoke” and has provided them with such resources as the Georgia quit line and other stop-smoking aids.

“But the smoke-free policy applies to everyone at all of our facilities, whether they are individuals who are receiving services, visitors or employees,” he said.  

Besides preparing the employees, Mullet said the health care provider “also wanted to prepare individuals who receive services at our clinics and other facilities.”

“It's one thing for individuals receiving outpatient services who may be at one of our clinics for two or three hours,” he said. “But it's another for individuals who may be in our intensive outpatient or peer group programs, who may be at one of our facilities for five or six hours. We've provided information about smoking-cessation resources but also indoor and outdoor games and other activities they can do on their breaks when they used to smoke.”

And then there are the patients in their treatment facilities.

“Finally, we've also been preparing to help those individuals in our residential treatment facilities and crisis-services units by ordering nicotine patches for individuals that need or want them while they are there,” Mullet said. “The residential facilities and crisis units no longer have designated smoking areas. Most hospitals will provide nicotine patches to patients who are unable to smoke while they are in the hospital, and we are doing the same thing in residential and crisis facilities.”

During Highland Rivers’ transition, some of its community partners have helped encourage more healthy living among its employees, patients and visitors.

Peach State Health Care provided fresh fruit, hard candy and stress balls to encourage wellness and healthier lifestyle choices as well as information about asthma.

“Peach State Health Plan enjoys partnering with organizations that promote healthy lifestyles in the communities that we serve,” Community Relations Representative I Dr. Gary E. Silvers said. “Highland Rivers took a bold step in going tobacco-free, and Peach State wanted to assist in making the transition as smooth as possible.”

Sandra Bethune of Northwest Georgia Cancer Coalition provided information on how to quit smoking or using tobacco as well as visual aids about the negative health effects of tobacco use.

"We are always thankful for community partners that help us promote wellness to everyone who visits our clinics," Highland Rivers' Chief Compliance Officer Stephanie Collum said.  

Mullet said officials are encouraging patients and employees to look at the new policy in a positive light.

“As much as a change like this can be seen as something you can't do, we've really tried to frame this as an opportunity — both for our employees and those who receive services from us — for people to think about stopping smoking, vaping or using tobacco,” he said. “Lifestyle changes can be made in small steps, and it doesn't always have to mean giving something up; it can be doing something positive.”

Mullet also said a healthy lifestyle is as important for mental health as it is for physical health.

“Mental health is often seen as separate from physical health when in fact good health and a healthy lifestyle includes both,” he said. “Unfortunately, individuals with mental illness or substance-use disorders often have other physical health problems, such as chronic disease. Part of mental-health recovery is learning to address those issues and living as healthy and independently as possible. So if smoking is contributing to a chronic health problem that is exacerbating an individual's depression or anxiety or addiction disorder, then stopping smoking would be an obvious benefit to their overall health, recovery and wellness.”

The health care facility is fortunate to have community partners willing to help promote healthy living, Mullet said.

“So when Peach State brings a big tray of fresh fruit for people to enjoy, it can help remind people that something as simple as substituting fresh fruit for chips once a day is a step toward becoming more healthy,” he said. “At the same time, the information and models that Northwest Georgia Cancer Coalition displays provide some pretty compelling examples of the damage that smoking can do to a person's body. So when someone sees those tables side by side in our clinic, it's a good opportunity for them to think about their health and how they can be healthier.”

Overall, Mullet said he thinks Highland Rivers becoming smoke-free is “a good thing.”

“Obviously, by eliminating exposure to secondhand smoke, it helps protect everyone who visits our facilities,” he said. “But if our being smoke- and tobacco-free provides the extra push someone might need to stop using tobacco, then that's even better.”

After the first week of the new policy, Mullet said he hadn’t heard of any complaints or problems.

“We've seen some visitors to our clinic smoking in the parking lot and had to remind them we are now smoke-free, and generally that has not been a problem,” he said. “That's not to say that everyone is happy about it, but I don't think not being able to smoke at a health care facility should be a surprise to anyone either.”

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