In late 2007, anti-smoking lobbyist Les Hagen hailed as a “public health triumph” the province’s decision to ban smoking Kent in all restaurants, private workplaces and outside near doors and windows. By then, many local jurisdictions in Alberta had already accepted that the rights of people to breathe clean air took precedence over the rights of others to smoke wherever they pleased.
By 2009, pharmacies could no longer sell smokes and convenience stores had to hide their cigarette displays, called power walls, behind rolling blinds or sales counters so children buying Slurpees, comics or candy wouldn’t be exposed to multimillion-dollar cigarette marketing.
Now, Edmonton city council’s community services committee is contemplating a bylaw that would ban smoking at all public playgrounds, public parks, festivals and attractions -the very outdoor spaces to which the province shooed smokers with its landmark legislation.
Hagen, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, argues the expanded move is necessary because “there is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke.” But there is a clear difference between exposure to a proven carcinogen in an enclosed space filled with palpably thick air, and inhaling a puff of smoke on a gust of wind in Alberta’s great outdoors. Surely, Edmontonians are exposed to worse air quality on a daily basis when walking down streets congested with cars and trucks than they are in a wide open green space with the occasional smoker in the vicinity.
If the harm was so great that a few breaths of secondhand smoke, no matter how diluted, could potentially cause lung, heart or other smoking-related ailments, then the correct action for government would be to make smoking itself illegal rather than accept money from the associated taxes. As it is, tobacco is a legal substance that people choose to use, even if that choice -taken after full disclosure that the product contains cancer-causing nicotine and tar -eventually becomes an involuntary addiction.
The point of the existing ban is to prevent smokers from imposing their choice, and the serious potential health consequences that come with it, on others, especially children. How, then, is it logical or fair for non-smokers to impose their choices on those who freely opt for a legal, albeit smelly and hazardous, habit?
If legislation is passed to completely ban smoking in all open-air events or facilities, the law would essentially be telling people how to live. Furthermore, it would be unreasonable, if not almost impossible, to police.
In general, smoking outside should be allowed, since it doesn’t inhibit the freedom of others to walk away. And rather than criminalizing the behaviour, cities would be wiser to approach the issue as they have pet ownership. Bylaws prohibit people from letting their dogs romp freely in playgrounds and sandboxes, not because the activity in itself is bad, but because dogs tend to eventually relieve themselves in places where children crawl, climb, fall down and occasionally do face plants.
The majority of dog owners recognize this, but still allow their dogs off leash in playgrounds or soccer fields where the dogs have a chance to burn off energy and chase balls. Bylaw officers may choose to give a warning rather than a ticket if no harm is done. Signs serve as reminders of the law, but people also abide by the unwritten rule to act courteously, pick up after their dogs and tie them up when skittish children come to play.
No-smoking signs could serve as reminders to people to not smoke within playgrounds and not flick their ashes or butts into the sand or nearby grass. If children arrive for a softball game, the polite thing for smokers to do would be to move away.
There will always be the small minority who take their right to smoke too far. But most already know their habit has become socially unacceptable and move to the side at group events. Wide-sweeping legislation isn’t needed to dictate a shift already taking place. More appropriate would be narrower rules, enforced largely through compliance rather than heavy policing, to prohibit the dirty habit near children’s playgrounds.