It’s the summer of 2014 in downtown Victoria. An unassuming tourist wanders down Trounce Alley off Government Street, admiring the quaint storefronts before stopping to light a cigarette.
“I’m sorry, but you’re not allowed to smoke here,” says a disapproving passerby.
The tourist returns to the swarm of pedestrians along Government and takes a drag. Dirty looks continue until a nearby food cart operator informs the tourist of a new region-wide bylaw that restricts smoking within seven metres of any doorway, window or air intake.
“I think you should be OK along the Inner Harbour,” the local says. “But don’t stop in Bastion Square – public spaces are banned too.”
As restrictive tobacco bylaws continue to expand across North American cities, smokers are left with shrinking public space in which to enjoy a legal activity. The Capital Regional District’s latest clean air bylaw, if approved by the board next week, would ban smoking in parks, public squares and playgrounds. Large swathes of downtown Victoria would also be smoke-free if the minimum smoking distance from buildings is increased from three to seven metres.
“The question is, when does the government have a right to tell us not to do something that is perfectly legal,” said Micheal Vonn, policy director with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
The latest CRD bylaw doesn’t strike the right balance between personal freedom and public health concerns, she said.
“We need to accommodate smokers (as well), and when we hear plans, for example, for no smoking in vast public parks, we say that’s a little too broad.”
Island Health highlights second-hand smoking risks
Dr. Richard Stanwick, chief medical officer at Island Health, said in his submission to the CRD that evidence proves there is no safe exposure to secondhand smoke, and that fact alone is adequate for stricter bylaws.
Stanwick’s office has also confirmed that tobacco restrictions in public spaces can lead to “significant positive social modelling,” while recent brain studies show the thought processes of children and youth can be affected through exposure to smokers.
But Vonn doesn’t buy Stanwick’s policy approach.
Public health is a legitimate concern, she said, but some of the academic submissions given to the CRD board are too obtuse in scope.
“The public health official is saying this is important to role model for children, and we know children are very impressionable. But in a free and democratic country, we do not demand citizens be role models for other people’s children,” Vonn said.
Proposed smoking ban affects public spaces
The seven-metre expansion could also shut down smoking areas attached to bars and restaurants, like those in Bastion Square beside Darcy’s Pub.
“(Legislation) used to say we needed a separate room for smoking, and restaurants spent thousands of dollars renovating, and then they banned that,” said Bob Parotta, president of the B.C. Restaurant Association, Victoria chapter. “We’re all looking forward to the days where no one smokes, but we can’t impose that on our guests.”
On the Victoria News’ Facebook page, Dani Kong summed up the sentiment of many smokers who feel they’re being covertly outlawed for their behaviour.
“Why is smoking even legal if it is so addictive, so unhealthy and so disgusting that you can’t smoke around other people,” Kong wrote.
“As a regretful smoker myself, I wish they were just illegal. Bylaws like this are offensive, because they say (cigarettes) aren’t healthy enough for the common citizen to secondhand breathe but healthy enough for you to smoke them.”
CRD directors rejected a strikingly similar clean air bylaw last May in a tight 12-11 vote. Should the bylaw be approved at an Oct. 9 board meeting, it will move forward to a public input process.