Thursday, August 27, 2009

Where There's Smoke, There's... Incoherence

For eight years, Ottawa's bars and restaurants have been smoke-free, pushing smoking patrons to find other venues to light up. The natural inclination was for these people to head out to a patio. According to The Ottawa Sun, now that is being targeted:

A doctors' group wants the city to take its smoking ban a step further and make it illegal to light up on restaurant and bar patios.

Cynthia Callard, the executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, said she's "disappointed" the city hasn't moved to ban smoking on patios because "it's a real health hazard" for those who wait on tables and for patrons.

"It's about time. If it annoys you it means you are smelling it and if you are smelling it, it means chemicals are reaching inside," said Callard, whose organization is preparing to lobby city councillors to take the smoking ban a step further. "We're hoping council will see the good sense of it."

As a good little libertarian, I was quite outraged by the intrusion of the government into private spheres back when the smoking police came on the scene. I even "bought" a membership to a smoking club at a bar (Puzzles) that was fighting the by-law (Puzzles is a dive... if anything, a nice haze of smoke obscures the otherwise unpleasant surroundings). Now, though, I can't get particularly worked up about the issue. I'm at the point of not really caring at all (admittedly, the enjoyment of smoke free bars has probably aided that). However, this new proposal is going too far.

Let's put aside notions of private property, personal choice and personal responsibility for now. Let's tackle the nuisance issue of smoking. Ms. Callard details for us why smoking - even outdoors - is bad for everyone. Beyond the aesthetic issues regarding smoking, there's the whole second hand smoke = cancer thing. However, if our concern is with the carcinogenic externalities of smoking, then the last thing we should be doing is forcing all smokers into the street.

The smoking by-law may have been great for creating smoke free bars, but it had the unfortunate effect of forcing all these smokers onto the sidewalk. A walk through downtown Ottawa on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night will demonstrate that it is near impossible to travel through the core, anywhere near a bar, and not be assaulted by someone's nic habit.

(Further, walk through the core during a weekday, and you get the pleasure of second hand smoke wafting from just about every office building entrance and sidewalk.)

The very fact that some bars are nice enough to open part of their property to smoking patrons should be heralded as a reasonable compromise between eliminating the nuisance of smoking in bars and limiting the nuisance of smoking in public.

During the public debate surrounding the original ban, there was much hand-wringing about everyone's right to go to a bar without having to deal with second hand smoke - as if there was a reasonable expectation to be able to use another's property for your own preferred activities. It appears that not enough thought is given to what is truly a reasonable expectation - to be able to use the sidewalk without being subjected to a cancer gauntlet.

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