Should smoking bans extend to public parks and beaches? Debate sparks controversy in Canada

The Alberta government is taking steps to prevent and reduce tobacco use among underage youth and limit children’s exposure to second-hand smoke.
The Alberta government is taking steps to prevent and reduce tobacco use among underage youth and limit children’s exposure to second-hand smoke. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

TORONTO – What started as a trickle of smoking laws in Canada has now turned into stream of restrictions on where smokers can light up – not in some restaurants, patios, outside office spaces or coffee shops.

These bylaws are now seeping into public spaces outdoors, such as parks and beaches across Canada and the United States.

A new Columbia University paper suggests that while these measures are implemented to stifle second-hand smoke, pollution and influencing kids, there is no evidence to show they’re effective.

Instead, they “denormalize” smoking, adding pressure on smokers to light up less, or butt out altogether.

“It rests on the duty of government acting in the name of public health to restrict smoking in order to protect smokers themselves,” the researchers say.

Read more: Smokers who quit before 40 save a decade of their lives: study

Across the U.S. over the past decade, smoking bans were implemented in 843 parks and 150 beaches, the study says. At the forefront of the cause is California, where 155 parks and 45 beaches no longer allow smoking.

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North of the border in Canada, smoking bans in beaches, parks and playgrounds have extended into several Canadian regions, Ottawa and Hamilton, for example. Calgary, Toronto and other cities are considering their own measures. By March 2013, the Manitoba government became the first in the country to ban smoking on all its public beaches and playgrounds.

The Canadian Cancer Society in B.C. has even called for a ban on outdoor smoking in public spaces across the province.

“These bylaws are popular in communities – people want them. There’s no doubt that restriction on smoking discourages it,” Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst at the Canadian Cancer Society, told Global News.

“The trend is inevitable,” he said.

Cunningham said smoking bans have had an uptake in the past five years. It began in the 1970s with banning smoking in grocery stores, or adding designated smoking areas in restaurants. The non-smoking areas expanded, and by 2006, all restaurants in Ontario and Quebec banned smoking outright.

These days, most Canadians are accustomed to not being affected by smoke, Cunningham said.

Read more: Canadian study links secondhand smoke to childhood aggression

The society’s own research into smoking bans suggests that they help in reducing cigarettes smoked per day and provide motivation to quit.

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These moves don’t come without contention, though. While cancer societies are in favour of these heightened restrictions, critics allege they infringe on civil rights.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has spoken up on the issue many times. It alleges the ban violates individual freedom. It’d also be hard to enforce, the organization says.

“It’s a public space and it’s a legal activity. When you have restraints on these legal activities, they need to have proper justification because you’re infringing on people’s right of choice,” BCCLA executive director Josh Paterson told Global News.

“Already smokers are constrained from smoking in a whole range of spaces, and when you start constricting that in open air and wide open spaces, it’s important to question the evidence and rationale behind that,” he said.

A British sociologist, Frank Furedi, told the National Post that the debate has nothing to do with health.

“There’s a kind of crusading spirit behind this…People become very scared to speak out because they will be accused of being complicit in endangering the lives of children,” he told the newspaper.

Others are hesitant because they worry that the laws would force smokers away from using public spaces, run by public taxes.

Cunningham, of the cancer society, says that public health is the priority, though. There’s been tremendous pressure to crack down on drinking that hasn’t been applied to smoking, he says. Adults don’t drink alcohol at kids’ soccer games, for example.

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“Someone’s ability to do something can end when it affects somebody else,” he said.

Read more: Personalized cancer care: Treating the ‘new face’ of lung cancer in Canada

The Canadian Cancer Society says that cancer is the leading cause of death in the country. Lung, breast, colorectal and prostate are the most common types of cancer in Canada based on 2013 estimates.