Halifax has become one of the first big cities in Canada to ban smoking of any kind on all municipal property, including roads, parks and sidewalks, with city officials saying the move was prompted by the pending legalization of recreational cannabis.
Some critics are calling the move heavy-handed, while others say it discriminates against those on low incomes. But the Canadian Cancer Society says it’s just the beginning of an inevitable trend.
“We’re going to see a large number of municipalities wanting to take action on this,” said Rob Cunninghan, a senior policy analyst with the non-profit group. “People just don’t want to be exposed to more second-hand smoke as they’re walking down the sidewalk.”
As well, provincial and municipal politicians are probably anticipating the complaints they’ll be getting about the pungent aromas produced by burning weed.
Last week, Halifax regional council voted to impose the sweeping ban, which also prohibits all smoking on trails and playgrounds.
The municipality, with a population of more than 400,000 residents, plans to set aside designated smoking areas and enforce the new rules with the help of eight additional bylaw officers. Fines will range from $25 to $2,000.
The bylaw is expected to be implemented after Labour Day, but before recreational cannabis smoking becomes legal across Canada on Oct. 17.
Unfortunately, the new bylaw will produce some unintended consequences for marginalized people, said Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
“The social science is clear: most well-off people aren’t smoking cigarettes, but there’s a disproportionately high number of low-income people who do smoke,” he said. “As a result, there’s a significant amount of disadvantaged people who are more likely to be adversely affected by this bylaw.”
In particular, those struggling with addictions will find it tough to deal with a sidewalk ban.
“They’ll be standing outside of their 12-step programs, having a smoke, because that’s what happens at those meetings,” said Bryant. “Well, I don’t know where they’re going to go now … It’s a positive public health purpose, but it’s going to have an unintended negative public health effect on the poor.”
Bryant said policy-makers in Halifax should include designated smoking areas near homeless shelters, drop-in centres and the public venues where self-help meetings for addicts are usually held, like churches and synagogues.
Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, said the province must offer more support for those trying to quit smoking.
“We have to be cognizant of groups where smoking rates remain high,” he said. “But I would argue that there is good evidence that increasing non-smoking environments actually supports people in quitting smoking.”
Strang said the long-term goal is to create a culture in Nova Scotia where non-smoking is the norm.
“There’s a whole shift in philosophy,” he said in an interview Monday.
Halifax Coun. Matt Whitman voted against the bylaw, saying it’s going to be too difficult to enforce.
About 16 per cent of Canadians — about five million people — still smoke. That’s down from 50 per cent in 1965.
“We’ve made tremendous progress,” said Cunningham. “Still, smoking remains the leading preventable cause of disease and death, killing 45,000 Canadians each year.”
To be sure, Halifax wasn’t the first Canadian community to ban all smoking in municipal spaces.
In 2008, the town of Bridgewater in southwestern Nova Scotia passed a bylaw to ban smoking on streets or sidewalks within school areas or while a parade is in progress. As well, the council decided smoking would be banned on any town property, including parks, playgrounds, recreational facilities and cemeteries.
In March of this year, the Montreal suburb of Hampstead tabled plans to prohibit tobacco or marijuana smoking on municipal property, including sidewalks and streets.
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press