Dr. Pete Sarsfield, CEO and medical officer of health for the Northwestern Health Unit, has made it clear: 2002 is the year municipalities served by it should create bylaws to ban smoking in all enclosed public places.
Starting last week, the health unit sent out postcards to all residents in the Kenora-Rainy River district, encouraging them to sign the postcard and then mail it back to the health unit, which in turn will deliver them to municipalities to show how much residents want the smoking ban.
“While I have the authority to ‘declare’ a health hazard, the Northwestern Health Unit does not have the resources to enforce such a declaration,” said Dr. Sarsfield.
“It is my hope that by declaring that second-hand smoke is a health hazard, employers and local governments will do the right thing and eliminate smoking from all enclosed public places, including workplaces,” he added.
Dr. Sarsfield noted he feels governments “have a moral and legal obligation” to make public places smoke-free, but this responsibility has been shifted to local municipalities.
“None of the 19 municipalities in the two districts currently have a bylaw to protect all citizens from this health hazard,” he said. “In some cases, the municipal councils don’t believe that smoke-free public places and workplaces are a priority for the people who elected them.
“I am asking for [the public’s] help to show them that [the municipalities] are mistaken,” Dr. Sarsfield said.
He stressed that in 2002, the health unit will be relentless in its educating on the hazards of smoking and second-hand smoke.
“Employers who permit smoking in their workplace are endangering the health of their employees and of any member of the public entering the workplace,” he warned.
“Let’s face it, employees and patrons at these places are going to be living a shorter lifespan,” Dr. Sarsfield said. “I have a 23-year-old daughter working at a restaurant where there’s smoking—I shudder to think sometimes.
“If you took all the chemicals in cigarette smoke and could concentrate them, we’d call it a toxic spill. If all those chemicals were in people’s food, we’d shut that restaurant down.
“Some employers say that making their business smoke-free will offend their smoking patrons and they will lose money,” Dr. Sarsfield said. “Research shows that this is not the case.
“Smoke-free by-laws can create a ‘level playing field’ where every workplace is free of this hazard. In any case, the central issue is one of health, not of money.”
Dr. Sarsfield also addressed the question of how, if the health unit is operating on a tight budget, he could justify carrying out a campaign with mail outs, paid radio spots, and widespread advertising in regional newspapers such as the Times.
“This is a high priority. We have had some legal and financial help from the Ontario Tobacco Research Council, but we would have done it without them,” he noted.
“My only sheepishness here is that I should have done it earlier.”
Dr. Sarsfield said that while some communities still haven’t got their postcards, let alone sent them in, he has gotten a fairly good response from people on the street.
“I’d say three out of four people say, ‘Well done—it’s about time.’ There’s always one out of four that say, ‘It’s my right to smoke. Back the hell off!” he remarked.
“I’m hoping we get a positive response—a positive response from my point of view,” he said. “I’m sure there’ll be some negative feedback, which is expected. But apathy—that would be most troubling.”
Every year in the Kenora-Rainy River district, which has an extremely high rate of smoking, an average of 52 men and women will learn they have lung cancer—and 46 will die of it.
In the same average year, 54 people will die from lung disease, 217 will die from heart disease, and many more will suffer from the effects of these diseases.
Most of these diseases can be linked to exposure to tobacco smoke, including second-hand smoke.