By Kathryn Blaze Carlson
Dr. Michael Siegel has been an anti-smoking advocate for 25 years, even testifying as an expert witness in a U.S. lawsuit that slapped the tobacco industry with a $145-billion verdict. He has stood before Congress and fought for smoking bans in restaurants, bars and casinos, and he supports smoke-free playgrounds because they are designed specifically for children.
Today though, Dr. Siegel is breaking ranks with his own movement because he fears it has gone too far, jeopardizing itself from within by crusading for bans in even the largest of outdoor public places such as parks and beaches.
By treading into the realm of Times Square or Stanley Park, as New York and Vancouver have done, the movement risks losing the science-based argument it has long won — because, Dr. Siegel said, there is no evidence that fleeting second-hand exposure in an open space is significantly harmful.
“Once we leave the firm ground of science, we could be viewed as zealots — fanatics trying to eliminate smoking anywhere and everywhere,” said Dr. Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.
Just this week, the Montreal Island city of Côte-St.-Luc passed Quebec’s strictest anti-smoking bylaw, prohibiting smoking within 20 metres of the city’s playgrounds and sports fields as well as in public parks during special events.
“Basically, what this new by-law does is take the rules against smoking one step further,” Councilor Steven Erdelyi said in a statement. “Smoking in a public place, even outdoors, is a nuisance for all those close to the smoker.”
The Ottawa Board of Health last month recommended a smoking ban on all city property, including parks, beaches and restaurant patios. Over the past three years, dozens of municipalities from British Columbia to Newfoundland and Labrador have legislated similar sanctions, and the list of grows with each month that passes.
Smokers cannot light up in city parks in Barrie, Ont., or in Bridgewater, N.S. They cannot smoke within 7.5 metres of a bus shelter in North Vancouver, within nine metres of a wading pool in Toronto, or anywhere on Vancouver’s municipal trails.
“This is not a health issue and it has nothing to do with helping to protect children,” said British sociologist Frank Furedi. “There’s a kind of crusading spirit behind this. It marks a slow process where people lose the critical capacity to say, ‘This is enough.’ … People become very scared to speak out because they will be accused of being complicit in endangering the lives of children.”
Few Canadians will dispute the harm of cigarettes and second-hand smoke: Every year, 37,000 Canadians die of tobacco-related illnesses and tobacco is still the leading cause of preventable death, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.
Most will support indoor smoking bans [even British American Tobacco, with 45 cigarette factories in 39 countries, supports them]. Many Canadians will also agree with Dr. Siegel that playgrounds should be smoke free — that parents should not have to fear their toddler chewing on a discarded butt in the sandbox.
But opponents of sweeping outdoor bans say these latest laws cross the line, trampling too far into an already highly regulated space and usurping what little space smokers still have. Outdoor bans are not a matter of science, they say, but a matter of preference.
“You can’t smoke in an apartment building because it might disturb your neighbour, you can’t smoke within ‘x’ distance of a doorway, now you can’t smoke in a park,” said David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. “Functionally, it becomes almost impossible to use a product that’s notionally legal and generates tax revenue for the government.”
Those who support outdoor bans say second-hand smoke contains 50 carcinogens and is so toxic that the U.S. Surgeon General and the World Health Organization have determined there is no safe level of exposure. Proponents also say outdoor bans de-normalize smoking in the eyes of children and lower the uptake rate, motivate smokers to cut down or quit, and reduce litter and even the risk of fire in wooded areas.
Simon Hayter for National Post
“You can’t smoke in an apartment building because it might disturb your neighbour; you can’t smoke within ‘X’ distance of a doorway; now you can’t smoke in a park,” said David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. “Functionally, it becomes almost impossible to use a product that’s notionally legal and generates tax revenue.”
The cancer society has issued its own a clarion call to municipalities, asking them in a position paper to “join the growing trend” of smoke-free outdoor bylaws. The Canadian Council for Tobacco Control says outdoor bans protect families, and that even passing exposure to second-hand smoke is harmful, despite the “false sense that smoke blows away.”
“Smoking is not one of our rights and freedoms,” said Robert Walsh, the council’s executive director. “In a socialist country like Canada, we want regulations that will help people make the choices that will help the common good. It’s part of our culture.”
But as smoking is increasingly outlawed, civil rights advocates worry what might be next: Will governments soon banish smokers from sidewalks? Will employers earn the right to discriminate against smokers, following the lead of the World Health Organization, which in 2008 declared it would not recruit those who light up? There are suggestions that a natural follow-up for an activist government would be to ban fast food, to help unhealthy eaters quit clogging their arteries.
“If people choose to do something that really doesn’t harm anyone else, and if they’re prepared to live with the consequences, then that’s what happens in a free society,” Mr. Furedi said. “People are trying to turn smoking into an illegal, immoral activity and I think that level of intrusion is quite insidious.”
But Mr. Walsh contends the “nanny state argument” fails in a country that he says puts collective rights above individual ones; smoking outdoors, he said, prevents the mutual enjoyment of public spaces.
“Mothers have told me, ‘If I’m at a park under a tree with my child and someone lights up next to me, I either have to move my kid into the sun or have them inhale smoke,’” said Mr. Walsh, himself a former smoker. “This is about protecting families and children, everyone really.”
That sort of rhetoric incites Mr. Furedi, who said the smoke-free movement and its legislative supporters are capitalizing on a growing culture of fear, tapping strategically into a parent’s instinctive desire to protect their children.
“These days, all you say is ‘child,’ and people say, ‘Better safe than sorry,’” said Mr. Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting.
John McCharles, the mayor of Petrolia, Ont., said he supports his county’s efforts this week to press for a ban on playgrounds and sports fields where children play, but said he would not support any proposed regulations in public parks, on beaches or on restaurant patios. His own wife battled lung cancer, yet he believes bans in vast outdoor spaces or in the private sector simply go too far.
“My concern is dictating to small business, who already have a hard time competing, that they can’t allow patrons to smoke on their outdoor patios or on their golf courses,” he said. “It can also turn into regulating things we can’t enforce. No smoking on a beach? I just don’t see that happening.”
Mr. Eby, of the civil liberties association, said passing an unenforceable sanction will breed disrespect for the law because people will see that breaking it has no real consequence beyond glares from passersby.
Before New York City’s sweeping ban took force last May, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the law — which covers Central Park, Times Square, and other city-owned public spaces — would be enforced not by police, but by public pressure.
“Central Park is huge, and I just really don’t see the need for a ban there,” Dr. Siegel said. “We’re still trying to win the battles we need to win … and I’m afraid we’re jeopardizing our legitimacy on more important fronts.”
Thoughts? Comments? Love to hear from all!