It’s been three years since Halifax’s smoking ban went into effect, which prohibits people from smoking or vaping on municipal property outside the 91 designated smoking areas scattered throughout the municipality.
But are people actually following the rules?
“I wouldn’t say it’s been effective,” said Paul MacKinnon, the CEO of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission. “People still smoke — whether it’s cigarettes or marijuana — kind of anywhere.”
While people do use the receptacles provided at the designated smoking areas in downtown Halifax, MacKinnon said people smoke outside of them too.
“People do use them at times, but people certainly aren’t gathered around them and only smoking there,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s any different than before the ban.”
Every summer, the business commission employs a crew to pick up litter in the downtown area. Last summer, they picked up more than half a million cigarette butts, MacKinnon said.
“If people are still choosing to smoke, that’s fine, but the more that people can take that personal accountability and use the receptacles that are still out there, that would be much better,” he said.
“That’s by far our number one piece of litter that we pick up.”
‘It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense’
The amendment to the Nuisance and Smoking bylaw coincided with the legalization of cannabis back in 2018, to prevent people from lighting up in inappropriate places.
Sam Austin, the councillor for Dartmouth Centre, voted in favour of the ban back in 2018.
“And then I promptly turned around and led the resistance to overturn it,” he said with a laugh.
Austin said he was “never really all that keen” on the smoking ban, but he supported efforts to curb public use of cannabis and, perhaps, get more people away from harmful smoking habits.
But as more details about the rollout of the designated smoking areas came out, and upon hearing concerns from the public about the potential impact the ban could have on marginalized communities, Austin changed his mind.
He introduced an amendment to the bylaw to remove tobacco from the equation and only focus on cannabis, but that was voted down.
Three years later, Austin doesn’t think the ban has had much of an impact.
“As far as I’ve seen, life has gone on exactly as it did before,” he said.
“I don’t think anyone changed their behaviour on smoking, really. I think any sort of use of the smoking stations, to me, has been happenstance. If there is a station right where someone was going to smoke anyway, they’re using it.”
Enforcement of the bylaw is complaint-driven, but he said the very nature of smoking makes it difficult to enforce.
“Someone lights a cigarette, they have their smoke, and then they’re done, right? It’s not exactly something that’s easy to catch someone doing,” said Austin, adding that bylaw officers are “really busy folks.”
According to HRM spokesperson Brynn Budden, bylaw officers have not issued any tickets since the ban came into effect. “Compliance officers continue to focus on education and compliance,” she said in an email.
Halifax Regional Police spokesperson John MacLeod confirmed that their officers have issued 13 summary offence tickets for $399.91 since Oct. 15, 2018, all in the central division.
“It really has been a bylaw that exists on paper,” said Austin. “I’m not pro-smoking, but I think from a practical lens it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
In terms of cost, the city spent around $120,000 to purchase 600 receptacles and in 2019 the city budgeted $60,000 to service them. The municipality was unable to provide updated figures to Global News by story deadline.
However, Austin said it’s good to have more places for people to put their cigarette butts.
“Even if the bylaw’s a bit of a bust, having a couple of ashtrays, that we have a little bit less litter on the street, there might be some value to that piece,” he said.
Compliance, not punishment
Coun. Waye Mason, who represents the downtown Halifax area, said the aim of the smoking ban was to curb public use of cannabis once it was legalized, and to keep people from smoking in places where secondhand smoke can cause harm to others.
This was done through the implementation of the designated smoking areas, “which I think was partially successful and partially not,” said Mason.
He said while the bylaw may be difficult to enforce, the aim was to educate.
“The goal of a bylaw is usually compliance, not punishment. We’re not actually trying to ticket people, we’re not trying to threaten people with going to jail,” he said.
“I don’t think it was either the colossal failure or the rigorous legal straightjacket that people on both sides of the argument wanted.”
The initial rollout of the designated smoking areas was muddled, with smoking receptacles arriving late due to supply chain issues and only a few in place when it began.
Mason said while there were some issues to iron out early on, he’s received positive feedback from his constituents since.
“What I grab onto as a success is that I’ve had residents say, ‘I’ve been smoking medical marijuana for years and now there’s a place near my office downtown where I can go and smoke and no one’s allowed to bug me,’” he said.
“It legitimizes something that people are allowed to do and creates a place where they’re allowed to do it.”
A ‘limited success’
Lisa Blackburn, the councillor for Middle/Upper Sackville, Beaver Bank and Lucasville, said her main concern when she voted in favour of the ban was to establish a guide for cannabis use.
“It was the wild west when it came to cannabis, and the fact that it had just been legalized, and what did that mean for Halifax,” she said.
In terms of achieving that goal, Blackburn said she would call it a “limited success.”
“It certainly didn’t cure all of our ills that we had, but it certainly established a good framework that we could continue to work with,” she said.
Blackburn said she often sees people congregating around smoking areas in the Sackville region.
Being a mostly suburban community outside of the city centre, the area has very limited municipal smoking areas. There are only six in the Lower Sackville region, and none in the Middle and Upper Sackville areas.
However, Blackburn said that local businesses and community hubs have created their own places for people to smoke.
In terms of the cost of the designated smoking area program, Blackburn said she was disappointed that the municipality didn’t get more help with funding.
“(During cannabis legalization) the federal government provided money to the provinces for this very thing, enforcement,” she said. “And unfortunately, last I checked, that money has not trickled down from the province to the municipality.”
While the smoking ban garnered a lot of discussion three years ago, there’s been very little messaging or promotion about it since.
Blackburn said many of those efforts over the last 18 months have been sidelined by COVID-19.
“I think now, as more people are getting out, we’re getting back to a more normal lifestyle, it’s time to circle back and promote that again as, if nothing else, a reminder that, ‘Hey, this is where smoking is acceptable here in HRM,’” she said.
“Certainly, it hasn’t been perfect, but I think that with a little bit of promotion we can get back on track.”