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Canada's anti-smoking rules still way too mild

It's been exactly one year since Quebec's sweeping smoking ban took effect on World No Tobacco Day.

Smoking was banned in bars, restaurants, taverns, casinos, on school grounds and within nine metres of any exterior door of a health, social services or educational institution.

Quebec was one of the last bastions of the smoky bar, and there were dire warnings that the province's legendary joie de vivre and nightlife would be crushed under the advances of Big Brother.

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Despite the sky-is-falling claims of some bar owners (most of them aligned with Big Tobacco), the world as we know it did not come to a grinding, smokeless halt.

Bar business did not go "poof." Bingo halls did not go bankrupt. Nicotine addicts did not drop dead outside hospitals as they trudged nine metres from the door desperately searching for a place for a legal puff.

In fact, according to a new poll, the smoking ban is enormously popular with the public: 78 per cent of Quebeckers surveyed - including 60 per cent of current smokers - said the legislation has improved the health and quality of life of citizens.

Interestingly, it is young adults aged 18 to 24 - the demographic that tends to hang out in bars and restaurants and the age group in which smoking is most popular - who are the most enthusiastic about the smoke-free rules.

"The more people go to bars the more they appreciate the new law," said Louis Gauvin, spokesman for the Quebec Coalition for Tobacco Control.

According to the Quebec poll, about one in 10 smokers have kicked the habit in the year since the ban was introduced. The quit rate was twice as high, 21 per cent, in the youngest age group.

Now, you can dismiss the poll as the work of anti-tobacco zealots, but nothing in the survey is the least bit surprising.

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The majority of provinces and territories - British Columbia and Alberta being the notable exceptions - have comprehensive smoke-free legislation, and municipal bylaws are commonplace.

All the credible research has repeatedly shown the same results: smoke-free laws have no discernible impact on sales of food or liquor; smoking bans help people quit; outlawing smoking is popular with the general public; and the stronger and the more extensive the ban, the more bang you get for your buck in terms of public-health benefits.

Yet for all the perceived bellyaching by business, and strong public support for smoke-free legislation, laws remain pretty tame in Canada.

Quebec, for example, still allows smoking on most patios (why restaurant and bar owners reserve prime seating for smokers, a small minority, defies logic) and the sidewalks outside some bars and office towers are like giant ashtrays, a violation of the spirit if not the letter of the law.

Similarly, it remains far too easy to buy cigarettes, even for minors. And our health system provides paltry support to those trying to quit.

Fewer than 20 per cent of Canadians now smoke. Yet we still tolerate smoking in virtually all public spaces such as parks and allow parents to smoke in cars in the presence of their children, areas where numerous European jurisdictions have cracked down.

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It is clear that there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke. There are about 4,000 known chemicals in tobacco smoke, more than 50 of them carcinogenic. Exposure to second-hand smoke causes cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and worsens existing conditions such as asthma.

Sound public-health policy requires that all workplaces and public places be 100-per-cent smoke-free. No exceptions.

This is not a persecution of smokers: it is necessary for the protection of non-smokers.

Many policy makers and public-health officials think of anti-smoking campaigns as passé and boring.

But tobacco remains a leading killer, claiming the lives of 45,000 Canadians a year. It also costs the economy about $24-billion annually in medical costs and productivity losses.

Globally, smoking already claims more than five million lives a year, and tobacco companies have shifted their marketing efforts and opposition to anti-smoking legislation to the developing world.

Unless dramatic and sustained action is taken, smoking will kill more than one billion people worldwide in the 21st Century - 10 times the number who died in the 20th Century.

Smoking is not somebody else's problem. It is a continuing public-health disaster and a drain on prosperity.

We should think of that each time we enjoy a meal or a drink in a smoke-free restaurant or bar.

And each puff of smoke that assaults us when walking down the sidewalk, or that blows across a patio to sour an outing, should serve as a reminder that much more remains to be done.

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