IN FRONT OF AN OFFICE BUILDING in downtown Ottawa last week, I saw a man step out of the main doors, anxiously pat down the pockets of his blazer, and pull out a lighter and a pack of cigarettes. It was a damp, slushy day, cold rain pattering down beyond the building’s awning.
“You can’t smoke near the doorway,” a guard in the lobby called out, barely leaning out from behind his desk. The man paused, cigarette still unlit in his hand, and held the door open to talk. He pointed to the far end of the awning. “Is there ok?”
The guard shook his head. “I forget the law now. Five meters? Seven meters? If I were you, I’d just go to the parking lot.” The businessman turned up his collar, winced, and stepped out into the rain.
I’m not a smoker, never have been, but man, I felt bad for the guy.
The British Medical Association is petitioning their government to implement an absolute smoking ban in cars. Even if the smoker is the only person in the vehicle.
Across Canada, municipal laws bar smoking on restaurant patios, walking trails, and by building entrances. Smoking is banned on hospital grounds, despite a slew of incidents in 2011 in which patients were locked out of the hospital, IV tubes froze, and equipment malfunctioned in the extreme cold.
In New York, on the heels of last year’s controversial ban on smoking in beaches and parks, the Long Island Rail Road has recently barred smoking on train platforms and concourses.
More and more extreme bans are being lobbied worldwide. Proposals for smoke-free university campuses and smoke-free apartment buildings are being lobbied in multiple American states. The World Health Organization has a policy of “non-recruitment” for smokers and other tobacco users. Private companies are, controversially, following suit.
Anti-smoking lobbyists have a strong arsenal of science and public health to back their petitions. However, proposed smoking bans are encroaching more and more into an individual’s private space, including apartments and cars. The question needs to be posed: are anti-smoking crusaders still tackling a health issue? Or has it become a social one? Are these proposed limitations still for the good of the public, or have they taken a punitive angle?
Recently, anti-smoking lobbyist Dr. Michael Siegel stepped away from his own movement after 25 years of advocacy. According to the National Post, the public health professor worries that the cause is stepping beyond the foundation of science, and risks tipping into fanaticism.
How far can we limit and contain a habit that is still perfectly legal? Are nonsmokers being asked to cede their rights, or is it the smokers who are now being infringed upon?
While I’ll rally behind the hazards of secondhand smoke, some of these policies are going too far. If companies won’t hire smokers because they don’t fit an agenda of healthcare, why are smokers singled out as unhealthy? How are smokers any different from the obese? Heavy drinkers? Donut eaters?
Though it’s tough to argue the hazards of smoking indoors or near child-oriented facilities, is it fair to tightly restrict smokers’ actions outdoors? For the man I saw outside his office building, hoping to smoke under an awning, was it reasonable for him to go out in the rain? Had he smoked by the main doors, would passers-by really be harmed by a fleeting bit of secondhand smoke?
In an urban space with vehicle emissions, acidic rain, and a lot of pigeon crap, I don’t think that smokers can be singled out for dirtying the air.