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Legislators consider repealing smoking ban at N.H. veterans home

Legislators will weigh in next week on whether the New Hampshire Veterans Home should be able to ban smoking on its Tilton campus.

The campus is almost smoke-free, for now.

A policy enacted in July prohibits residents and staff from smoking, but it grandfathered in a handful of residents, who are allowed to smoke in shelters set several yards from the building.

New applicants for space at the home who smoke are admitted under the condition they attend smoking-cessation classes and agree not to use tobacco on the premises.

The House Health and Human Services Committee recommended, 9-6, yesterday that the Legislature kill a bill that would reverse the policy.

It’s an issue that cuts across party lines and divides veterans.

Residents of the home spoke at a committee hearing yesterday, complaining of the smell of the former indoor smoking area and raising concerns about the risk of fire.

But Fred Osgood, a resident of the home and a nonsmoker, said he didn’t think the ban was fair.

Rep. Donald LeBrun, a Republican from Nashua, spoke against the bill: “I’m a veteran and I’m 80 years old. I might need to go to a home like this someday, and it doesn’t matter if I’m in a state agency or private, there are going to be policies I’ll have to agree to live by if I want to live there. Let the people we put in place run the agency,” he said.

LeBrun’s fellow Republican, Rep. Al Baldasaro of Londonderry, disagreed.

“I served 22 years, three months and 18 days in the Marine Corps. You’re going to tell me that because I’m a smoker, I’m a second-class citizen, that I don’t rate to go into my state home,” he said.

The policy was inspired by a successful lawsuit against a similar facility in Virginia, after a resident was severely burned when he lit himself on fire with a cigarette, said Commandant Margaret LaBrecque.

The residents’ counsel agreed with the idea, which was then proposed to and supported by the home’s board of managers.

When word of the new policy got out, however, some residents protested, and two local lawmakers, Democrats Rep. Lorrie Carey of Boscawen and Rep. Howard Moffett of Canterbury, filed the bill under debate yesterday.

“You could look at it as a health bill, (but) I look at it as an anti-discrimination bill,” Moffett said.

“This policy has been instituted with best of intentions, but it resulted in discrimination against a class of people, the last class of people we should be discriminating against.”

Three veterans who smoke have sought to move to the home since the policy passed; one of them declined to accept the terms of the new policy, LaBrecque said.

Rep. Tom Sherman said after the vote that none of the committee members meant disrespect to veterans who smoke, but that the majority hoped the residents and administration of the veterans home would be able to work this out without legislative involvement.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned,” Sherman said, “it’s that New Hampshire is a local-control state.”

The bill is expected to appear before the full House on Wednesday.

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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