Selling smokers down the river

January 28, 2002

George Jonas
National Post

Many years ago I sat in the smoking section of a DC-9. (Yes, airliners did have smoking sections in those days.) During a stop in Pittsburgh, a large gentleman got on and squeezed himself into the middle seat beside me.

Our section was crowded, but the non-smoking section was almost empty that day. As the plane took off, everybody around me lit up, except the large gentleman in the next seat. I thought he had been dashing to catch his flight and left without his smokes, so I offered him a cigarette.

"Thanks, I don't smoke," he said.

I became curious. "If you're not a smoker," I asked, "why do you get yourself all cramped up sitting here? In the non-smoking section you could have a whole row to yourself."

"Well, I tell you," said the large gentleman. "I'm an engineer and I travel a lot. I've never smoked, but I've always found smokers better company."

I'm relating the story simply to illustrate how the world has changed; I leave it up to readers to decide whether it has changed for the better. Speaking for myself, I gained two things from giving up smoking four years ago. The first is a potential benefit to my health. At least, this is what the medical, social and educational establishments tell me. Despite their dubious track records in other respects, in this matter I'll give them the benefit of a doubt.

A second benefit I gained from giving up cigarettes is professional. I can now rise to the defence of people who haven't given up cigarettes. I can do it in print, without having to declare a conflict of interest or cope with the charge that I've an axe to grind.

Smokers need defending, God knows, though not as consumers of nicotine. Nicotine is legal. All the regulations Big Nurse has introduced in the past 25 years haven't made a dent in people's ability to fill their lungs with fumes. What these laws and by-laws did accomplish was to reduce people's status as free human beings. They diminished everyone's property rights, along with people's ability to engage in lawful activities without being restricted and humiliated.

People don't need to be defended in their capacity as smokers: They need to be defended in their capacity as citizens. Canadians need protection from the state, not as consumers of nicotine, but simply as consumers. Also, as proprietors or employees. They need protection from the authorities so they can choose the conditions under which they wish to work, eat, drink and relax, whether they're smokers or non-smokers -- something people used to take for granted until about 20 years ago.

Nothing illustrates the problem -- or the solution -- better than a tale of two cities, Ottawa and Gatineau. On Aug. 1 last year, Ottawa introduced a strict anti-smoking by-law that banned smoking in restaurants, bars, bingo halls and bowling alleys, along with other public places. Gatineau, a mere 10-minutes drive away on the other side of the river, has no such restrictions. As a result, the newly amalgamated city has been picking up much of Ottawa's food and beverage business since the fall.

Gatineau's bar and restaurant owners are naturally elated, and so are Gatineau's city councillors. They can't stop bragging about the new customers who spend money on their side of the river.

It's just as natural for Ottawa's city fathers and health commissars to be miffed. Faced with a nightly exodus of a fair percentage of the city's population, and also rebellious proprietors threatening to circumvent the new regs by turning their establishments into private clubs, Big Nurse has been having second thoughts. S/he is beginning to realize that it's one thing to bring Draconian anti-smoking laws to a place like Toronto, isolated somewhere between the north shore of Lake Ontario and the bush, and quite another to introduce them in a town just a stone's throw from a vibrant and sophisticated francophone city like Gatineau.

Second thoughts for Big Nurse don't translate into a change of policy, though, only into a change of spin. Yes, maybe some smokers are abandoning Ottawa for Gatineau, argues Big Nurse, but non-smokers from Gatineau are flocking in droves to Ottawa's pristine, hygienic, smoke-free eateries. The capital's restaurateurs shouldn't fear that the capital's policy makers will lose them business. "The examples are anecdotal, but we are hearing about people crossing the river to come here," Alex Munter, head of Ottawa's Health, Recreation and Social Services committee, has been quoted as saying.

Let's assume for a moment that Councillor Munter's hopeful spin is true. Let's assume that Ottawa's and Gatineau's smokers and non-smokers are utilizing the by-law for an informal population exchange. Smokers go to Gatineau, and non-smokers to Ottawa. If so, what does this prove?

It proves that when people are free to choose, they do. Some choose smoke-free places, and some choose smoking ones. If proprietors could decide whether to offer smoking or smoke-free services in their establishments, they would, on Councillor Munter's own evidence, find patrons within Ottawa and Gatineau as easily as between Ottawa and Gatineau. Proprietors who choose to offer smoke-free services might, in fact, be ahead of the game because only about one adult in five smokes in Ottawa.

But that's not how the regulatory mind works. Smoking doesn't worry health commissars half as much as choice. Perish the thought that owners should be able to decide for themselves whether to allow smoking in their places of business or not. Perish the thought that customers should be able to choose between smoke-free and smoking bars.

That's why it isn't smokers who need defending; citizens do. Perhaps they wouldn't need so much defending if they had started defending themselves sooner -- say, about 30 years ago. By now it's an uphill struggle. The state, ejected from the nation's bedrooms by Pierre Elliott Trudeau's grand gesture in 1967, has oozed back into almost every other chamber, including the chamber of commerce. It seeped through the orifices of public health, as often as not. Sealing the drains through which the state trickles into the public and private houses of the nation ought to have been the job of my generation. We left it undone, so the task now awaits our children. They'd better get on with it, before Ottawa's health Gestapo takes the next logical step and bans all travel to Gatineau.