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Planning

Feb 2, 2013

Should smoking on streets be banned?

A Councillor's proposal to ban smoking in public places could effectively make the city centre an unwelcome place for a significant proportion of the population

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Smokers at work (source: www.traveladventures.org)

Melbourne City Councillor Richard Foster has a “radical” proposal to prohibit smoking in all public places within the municipality. Smoking should be banned, he says, in:

Any public place that could in no way be considered a private place, so basically anything that is not private land, so that would include al fresco dining areas, outside office  blocks, anything like that.

What makes Councillor Foster’s proposal “radical” is that he wants to prohibit smoking on streets entirely!

Opportunities for the circa one fifth of adult Australians who smoke to light up in public places are getting fewer and fewer. Starting around the 1980s, smoking was progressively banned in the nation’s workplaces and more recently in enclosed venues like restaurants and pubs.

It’s being stubbed out in outdoor settings too. Many jurisdictions now restrict smoking in outside dining and drinking areas, in playgrounds, swimming pools, major sports grounds, transport stops and around the entrances to public buildings.

Some entertainment venues like casinos, pubs and clubs offer designated outdoor smoking areas on the premises. However in dense places it can be hard to find sufficient separated outdoor space to cater for smokers. Even in the ACT, most venues find the requirements too hard and Canberra consequently “is now almost totally smoke-free.”

The arguments for further regulation of outdoor smoking are summarised in the Cancer Council of Victoria’s comprehensive on-line resource, Tobacco in Australia.

There is persuasive evidence, it notes, that secondhand smoke can be harmful in crowded outdoor areas like restaurant patios.

However in non-crowded situations the main arguments aren’t about secondhand smoke. For example, the danger from smoking in playgrounds is bad role modelling and the risk children might swallow butts. In parklands the primary concerns relate to littering and the potential for bushfires.

In fact one of the key rationales for outdoor restrictions is they make it harder for smokers. Limiting opportunities to puff lowers consumption, provides another reason to stop, and helps prevent smoker’s who’ve quit from relapsing.

There are some public health academics, like Boston University’s Professor Michael Seigel and Sydney University’s Professor Simon Chapman, who think the risks from transient exposure to secondhand smoke are greatly over-stated.

The Cancer Council of Victoria also notes there is less exposure to secondhand smoke in outdoor settings and that arguments for banning smoking may in some situations “be chiefly about nuisance rather than public health risk.”

I think opposition to smoking on streets, where exposure to secondhand smoke is usually brief and passing, is one of those cases that’s really about nuisance rather than health. Nuisance is still a legitimate complaint, but it doesn’t carry the same weight as a health risk.

The loss of amenity for pedestrians needs to be balanced against the value of the street in providing a universally handy place where smokers can always go for a quick drag to feed their habit.

That highlights a key problem with Councillor Foster’s idea – he fails to recognise, or accept, that smoking is an addiction.

It means it would be hard to enforce a ban on smoking on footpaths and squares. City streets are essentially unsupervised territory reliant on occasional and sporadic police patrols.

It’s not a good idea to make laws that can’t be enforced easily or cost-effectively and are likely to be ignored. The city centre is a popular metropolitan-wide destination for night life – it’s probable there’d be many smokers who after a few drinks would ignore any ban.

While there’s an argument that a ban would be justified by its symbolic value, the key problem is it would give smokers little quarter.

They wouldn’t have anywhere to go to satisfy their craving other than to those licensed venues within the City of Melbourne that are able to, or choose to, provide complying outdoor smoking areas (assuming Councillor Foster doesn’t want to do away with them too!).

The centre of Melbourne is dense and property is expensive. It can’t be taken for granted that most venues could provide a well-insulated outdoor smoking area.

And even if they were readily available, not everyone wants to sit in a bar or is comfortable in one, especially if they’re alone. Certain bars might be unsavoury and some patrons might not even be admitted. In any event, some smokers don’t drink.

There’s a vertical equity dimension here too – Councillor Foster’s ban would fall disproportionately on citizens of lower socio-economic status. Smokers are very heavily over-represented among those with lower levels of education and poorer life prospects.

It would effectively limit the scope of smokers to participate in the public life of the city. That’s not a trivial matter, as many of the key metropolitan institutions and attractions are located within the City of Melbourne.

City centres are cosmopolitan places. There are plenty of unpleasant sights, sounds and smells. It’s not hard to find something distasteful if you look for it, but cities work because we’re tolerant and forbearing in the face of diversity.

Smoking is a legal activity, so there should always be somewhere convenient smokers can go for a fag. If that means the four-fifths have to briefly put up with the smell of smoke on the footpath as they pass by from time to time then that’s unpleasant and a nuisance, perhaps it’s even an aesthetic outrage, but it’s not a major sacrifice.

There are plenty of other ways to address the social costs of smoking and so far they’ve been very successful.

As a society, we regulate closely how it can be advertised, packaged and sold. We provide a lot of public information on the appalling costs of smoking, impose high taxes on cigarettes, and subsidise withdrawal programs. It’s long been banned in workplaces and indoor public venues, and it’s increasingly being restricted in crowded outdoor venues.

There’s doubtless some scope to “tidy up” those huddles of smokers outside buildings so they’re less offensive to delicate sensibilities, but to give addicts virtually no refuge would be harsh, insensitive and unworkable.

Councillor Foster’s proposal is another step in the homogenisation of the centre that goes hand-in-hand with gentrification. John Lennon reminds us of what we might lose:

I regret profoundly that I was not an American and not born in Greenwich Village……I’m here just to breathe it. It might be dying, and there might be a lot of dirt in the air that you breathe, but this is where it’s happening.

BTW, I don’t smoke.

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