Psychiatric patients fight ban on smoking

By Kathryn Powley

Cigarette bans can be torture for people in mental health wards, says lawyer

One psychiatric patient was so desperate to smoke while in intensive care that she hid a lighter in her vagina. Photo / Thinkstock
One psychiatric patient was so desperate to smoke while in intensive care that she hid a lighter in her vagina. Photo / Thinkstock

High court action will be launched tomorrow against a smoking ban in an acute mental health facility.

Smoking bans are now enforced at hospitals, government buildings, schools, prisons, pubs and many parks. But Richard Francois, the lawyer leading tomorrow's judicial review application in the High Court at Auckland on behalf of three patients, said people on lockdown were there to be treated for mental disorders, not to quit smoking.

Their irritability and agitation was often interpreted as evidence of a mental illness rather than nicotine withdrawal.

One psychiatric patient, who is party to tomorrow's hearing, told the Herald on Sunday she was so desperate to smoke while in intensive care at North Shore Hospital she resorted to hiding a lighter in her vagina.

Francois said some patients were shunning treatment because they couldn't face the smoke-free policies. That was backed up by the mother of a 27-year-old man who could not face returning to a mental health unit at the South Island hospital where he'd been treated before.

"Smoking was his life," she said.

A 2008 Canadian study found a 15 per cent drop in the number of patients at Ontario wards in 2006 after smoking was banned in psychiatric emergency departments.

The Waitemata patient we spoke to - whose name is suppressed because of her participation in the judicial review - said being unable to smoke was "torture" and breached her human rights.

The former high-flying lawyer, 44, developed bipolar affective disorder after getting hooked on synthetic cannabis. She lost her two children, aged 7 and 11, who she now sees on supervised visits.

The 20-a-day cigarette smoker was admitted to Taharoto Mental Health Unit at Waitemata's North Shore Hospital in April last year.

She said she found it stressful witnessing staff handling uncooperative and violent patients.

"It's frightening enough. Then to know that you can't have your cigarettes, which are the main thing that keep you calm on a bad day or in a bad moment, that just adds to the stress."

There were patches and nicotine lozenges available, but she said they didn't work for her.

"I got a cigarette and lighter from some people who smuggled them in from the transition ward. I was so desperate to not be caught with this lighter that I hid it up my vagina."

She said the lighter fluid leaked out and she never got to use it, but doctors cited it as evidence she was too ill to be released.

"At the moment, my mental health is more important to me than my physical health. Being able to smoke cigarettes benefits my mental health," she said.

In response to a request made under the Official Information Act, Waitemata District Health Board chief executive Dale Bramley confirmed that the court challenge would be defended.

Meanwhile, a ban on smoking in prisons remains in force despite a High Court ruling in favour of prisoner Arthur Taylor.

The Corrections Department says its regulations override the ruling.

- Herald on Sunday

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