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Editorial: Butting in

Smoking. -SaltWire Network

Cigarettes, to put it mildly, are not as fashionable as they once were. In fact, campaigns to educate smokers about the deadly risks of lighting up and to help them quit have led to a remarkable decline in smoking rates in the past 50 years or so.  

Still, some 5 million Canadians are currently habitual smokers, and many groups and cities across the country are trying to take action to reduce that number to zero.

This week, Halifax became the latest city to fire a salvo in this war against the addictive, carcinogenic product. Prompted in part by the impending legalization of cannabis, the city’s council approved a bylaw banning smoking on all municipal property —including parks, trails, playgrounds, roads and sidewalks — set to come into effect sometime after Labour Day this year.

While more and more cities and towns may begin to implement these types of bylaws — and to be sure, it is a positive idea when it comes to public health — there are some problems Atlantic Canada’s largest municipality will butt up against while trying to get folks to butt out.

There is a risk the ban could target marginalized residents. As Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says: “… Most well-off people aren't smoking cigarettes, but there's a disproportionately high number of low-income people who do smoke. As a result, there's a significant amount of disadvantaged people who are more likely to be adversely affected by this bylaw.”

Think of drop-in centres, homeless shelters or addiction support group meetings at churches and synagogues. Participants trying to kick some more immediately life-threatening habits will often smoke cigarettes as their last refuge.

If these meeting places don’t fall under the municipality’s designated smoking areas, the disadvantaged participants are left with little option for areas to smoke, or face a fine they may not be able to afford for bucking the bylaw.

E-cigarettes or vaping, which many converts tout as an effective method of quitting cigarettes, would also be included in the Halifax ban. Is it fair to include this practice in the bylaw before more health risks or benefits are known about it?  

And while Halifax is hiring additional staff, enforcing all of this may be akin to policing the air. In a city as large as Halifax, how difficult will it really be to slip out for a smoke on the sidewalk without a bylaw officer noticing?

Similar rules have been implemented in the past at individual facilities or public places and, in many cases, are not stringently enforced 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It would be interesting to delve into statistics about how many smokers are fined for lighting up in a park, compared to how much the municipalities spends to enforce such a ban.

Without a doubt, a sweeping ban on cigarettes could also have many positive impacts on the smoking culture, but those benefits shouldn’t come at the cost of those who can’t afford to pay the price.

If municipalities, provinces and the public can focus on supports to help people quit in addition to these rules and regulations, perhaps then there’s a chance of all smokers butting out for good.

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