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One smoker's special, please ...

IN WHAT must rank as one of the most politically incorrect moves of our time, a bar in the North of England is offering "smokers' lunches" to nurses barred from indulging in their habit at the hospital next door.

Until the first of this month, staff at Furness General Hospital in Barrow- in-Furness, Cumbria, were allowed to smoke in designated rooms and in the hospital grounds. Then the rules were tightened and smoking anywhere, in the building and grounds, was prohibited. Smokers started gathering for a furtive drag in the car park of the neighbouring Barrow Cricket Club. When it rained, they asked if they could shelter inside the pavilion. The club, sensing it was on to a business winner, allowed them in and opened the bar area: the smoker's special was born.

Each weekday, said Ray Arnold, chairman of the cricket club's bar committee, around 30 hospital staff, mostly nurses, come across for lunch of pies, sandwiches, tea and coffee - and cigarettes. Demand, said Mr Arnold, is booming: "It has snowballed, the nurses are enjoying it."

About 60 women had taken up offers of concessionary membership to the end of this year so they could smoke in freedom, and the numbers are increasing.

Jim Herron, branch secretary of Unison, the biggest health union at the hospital, said the nurses' decamping to the cricket club had occurred because the hospital management had reneged on a commitment to provide smoking facilities. Since 1991, rooms had been set aside where staff could smoke. But, suddenly, they had lost those areas and even been banned from smoking in the grounds. "The system worked very well," said Mr Herron, "then it was changed, with the only argument being it was an unhealthy activity that set a bad example to patients and visitors."

The union has warned that staff will take their full lunch hour entitlement to go to the cricket club - something they were not doing before - and that patients in wheelchairs will congregate with staff on public roads leading to the hospital or join the nurses in the cricket club.

Jon Lenney, personnel director at Furness General, said the decision to outlaw the habit had been taken on health promotion grounds and the fact that so much of the hospital's work was spent dealing with problems caused by smoking. Allowing staff to congregate and smoke set a bad example. "It would not look good because visitors would have to walk through clouds of smoke," said Mr Herron.

Hospital managers are offering counselling and discount nicotine patches to staff to help them curb their addiction.