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Smoke 'Em if You Got 'Em

A proposed by-law reveals tension between the desires for public health and a welcoming community

by Philip Girvan

A defeated proposal for a by-law would have banned smoking on Main Street in Antigonish.
A defeated proposal for a by-law would have banned smoking on Main Street in Antigonish.

On March 14, Antigonish’s town council voted down the a proposal that would have prohibited all smoking on Main Street.

“I first thought when we looked at the smoke-free by-law…it sounded like a good idea,” said town councillor Willie Cormier.

However, a detailed study and community consultation made Cormier see the issue differently.

“We found that there’s a large diverse group of people that use Main Street…Antigonish kind of prides itself on it being fairly inclusive and not being too judgmental,” he said.

Although the measure passed a first reading at council in October, subsequent letters to the community newspaper, The Casket, expressed concern that the proposed smoking ban would marginalize some of the town’s poorest, most vulnerable citizens, many of whom enjoy a cigarette while gathering on the public benches lining Main Street.

Others suggested that the ban would unfairly curtail people’s freedoms. Antigonish resident Joanna Bisson called the proposed by-law “an infringement on people’s rights. [Smokers] shouldn’t have to hide in a corner to have a smoke,” Bisson said.

Penalties for first offences would have been between $50 and $200, and subsequent infractions would have resulted in fines of $100 to $300.  But smoker Bryden Wallace said that, despite the the threat of fines, “I wouldn’t have stopped smoking anyway. After a month of issuing 30 to 40 tickets a day, judges would have thrown the cases out.”

Holly Hiltz, an area resident, said that the by-law would have meant that she “walked a little bit more” before lighting up.

In December, community-health advocates, individuals who felt unfairly targeted by the anti-smoking ban, and other concerned citizens spoke before council to stress potential unintended and unforeseen harms arising from the proposed by-law.  At that time, Council voted to defer a second reading until after the completion of a Health Impact Assessment (HIA).

The HIA examined the proposed smoking by-law using a Community-driven Health Impact Assessment Tool (CHIAT) that was developed by the Antigonish Town and County Community Health Board in 2002. The CHIAT defines health “as being inclusive of physical, mental, social and spiritual wellbeing. It is determined by many factors outside as well as inside the health care system.”

Colleen Cameron, a faculty member with St. Francis Xavier University’s School of Nursing and co-facilitator of the CHIA, suggested that the CHIAT promotes health equity by providing an open, safe forum where diverse voices can be heard and “point out those potentially disadvantaged by a policy.”

In some circumstances, an HIA can take months; however, due to the timing and need for quick turnaround, the smoking by-law HIA was composed of two three-hour focus sessions held in January.

Participants included “business people from the Main St., people who might be negatively affected by the by-law, people who live on the Main St., people who work on the Main St., representatives from the day care centres who take children along the Main St., health professionals who work with people with mental illness, professionals who are health promoters, Community Health Board Representative [sic], and people with ethical decision making experience,” along with two city councillors, according to the HIA final report. 

Evidently, the CHIAT’s holistic approach to individual, population, and community health conflicted with the strict biomedical approach to health that appears to have guided the by-law.

Councillor Cormier indicated that the origins of smoking ban arose from town council “looking at it from [a] health perspective.”  During council's January meeting, area physician and President of Doctors Nova Scotia Dr. John Chiasson described the by-law as “thoughtful, timely and wise.”

Dr. Chiasson also suggested that requiring all members of the community adhere to a law would “remove stigmatization and marginalization.”

However, the CHIA final report suggested that the proposed by-law, as written, could result in unanticipated negative health impacts. Instead of a blanket ban, the report suggests more moderate measures such as having designated smoking areas on Main St., which would take into account the importance of being an “inclusive community”; and holding smoke-free events.

Council reconvened on January 16 and promised to review the HIA final report, which they received earlier that day, before making a decision on February 20. A vote on the by-law was then deferred until March 13 to allow for an open forum on the impacts of the proposed by-law.

Council voted down the proposed by-law on its second reading that same night.

“I do think that Council has a role and a responsibility in the health of the community,” said Willie Cormier.

But “[p]eople feel comfortable on Main Street. … The group felt that, on balance, there might be more harm done by the impact on those marginalized groups not feeling as welcome.”

Other councillors echoed Cormier’s sentiment. Deputy Mayor Dianne Roberts, who also voted against the by-law, said that she didn’t see that much smoking on Main Street.” Councillor Donnie MacInnis noted the backlash regarding the ban and said that “I’ve learned one thing in the last seven years on council… you really need to listen to the people.”

Both smokers and non-smokers expressed satisfaction with the decision. “[I’m] glad it didn’t [pass],” said Joanna Bisson, a non-smoker. Smoker Wayne MacDougall expressed relief that he wouldn’t “have to go to side streets”  in order to smoke.

Perhaps just as importantly, participation in the policymaking process itself seems to have been greatly appreciated by members of the community.

“I felt my voice and the voice of others could influence and affect the decisions of town council, ” said local adult educator Lise de Villiers, who added that the experience had given her a “new and profound respect for the councillors and the job that they do.”

Likewise, municipal representatives seemed to enjoy the chance to work with town citizens. “[A]nytime you are given an opportunity to get a cross section of the population together to discuss public policy over a six hour period, it can only be good for the community,” said town councillor Liz Chisholm.

The by-law may not be dead, however - it now returns to committee. It may die there,  but it may reappear before council (possibly incorporating suggestions from the CHIA).

And while councillors praised the inclusive, participatory consultation process, it remains purely voluntary.

Philip Girvan lives, loves, works & writes in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. He can be monitored @pgirvan

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