Every week (or so), two Torontoist staffers square off to debate an issue that’s important to our city. We invite our readers to join the debate in the comments section following the post.
Last week, Ontario Health Minister George Smitherman acknowledged that the idea of banning smoking in apartment buildings probably merits some kind of public discussion. While the election-conscious Smitherman didn’t venture any real opinion on the subject, much less suggest specifics on the timing, nature, or possible outcome of such a debate, the comment nevertheless fired up predictable controversy between pro and anti smoking groups. Read on to see what Torontoist makes of both sides of the story.
Has the time come to ban smoking in Ontario’s residential rental buildings? A
recent survey from the Ontario Tobacco-Free Network found that 64% of apartment residents supported the idea, suggesting that public opinion among those most affected has shifted in that direction.
Needless to say, the question of a legislated ban is contentious. The anti-smoking brigades, who have been on a roll in recent years with the elimination of cigarettes in most public spaces, see this move as the next logical step in anti-tobacco campaigns. Smoker’s rights groups scream “nanny state” and invoke the sacred right of individuals to behave as they wish in their own homes.
Of course, any apartment dweller who’s lived in proximity to a heavy smoker knows that cigarette smoke is undisciplined stuff, and not disposed to confine itself to a single unit. The case isn’t analogous to that common flashpoint of multi-cultural neighbourliness, cooking odours, because while culture and taste produce differing opinions on the relative noxiousness of a pervasive scent of curry or bratwurst, food smells are not an actual public health hazard. Second hand tobacco smoke, on the other hand, is a very real and well documented danger, especially to children, the elderly, and those with lung ailments. Surely your right to smoke in your home is trumped by my right to stay cancer-free in mine.
The compromise suggestion has been that the market will take care of the question, and that landlords should be able to determine whether their buildings will be smoke-free. However, it’s not at all clear that existing provincial laws permit such a restriction, and it’s unlikely that landlords have the authority to evict a tenant for defying any such ban.
Moreover, should it really be up to landlords to decide whether or not to put tenants at risk? Should the market also determine whether to leave asbestos insulation in place, or to install smoke detectors in buildings, or how to handle other safety measures (“First month FREE on floors with no fire exit!”)?
A recent article from Seattle suggests that in that city, many upscale buildings are already smoke-free. Typically, the least healthy environments are left to those who can’t afford to move elsewhere.
Technological solutions are impractical and unlikely to be implemented, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, an entirely airtight apartment wouldn’t be easy or cheap, particularly if the architect wants to avoid tenant suffocation (claims that modern buildings insulate smells from one unit to the next are a triumph of marketing, not building design). Secondly, even if suitable technologies did exist, it’s nonsense to suppose that thousands of existing residences could or would be retrofitted effectively.
30 years ago, smokers could light up in elevators, shopping malls, offices and even classrooms. As the risks of second hand smoke have become more apparent, smoking has gradually been eliminated from most closed spaces without apparent ill-effect on civil liberties in general. It’s time that apartment residents had the same rights to breathe fresh air within their homes as they do outside of them.
Let’s all agree that second-hand smoke poses a health risk. People who work in bars, or bingo halls, or nicotine-filled newsrooms need to be protected from their chain-smoking customers and colleagues. This is based on well-established science and makes for sound public policy.
However, unless your neighbour is running some kind of Kramer-esque smoking lounge, the idea that smokers in the next unit of your apartment building pose any kind of real health risk to you or your family is frankly absurd. Modern building codes stipulate that individual units need to have separate ventilation and hallways are supposed to be positively pressurized. This helps keep smoke and odours confined to individual apartments. No more are we to be bothered by the offensive smells of burnt toast or hand-wrapped Cohibas. So, a smoking ban in modern buildings is obviously unnecessary.
Even in older buildings, once cigarette smoke is diffused through all the intervening air, filtered by walls and carpets, etc., it is hard to believe that that smoke should be of more concern than the exhaust of cars driving by on the street, or coal-fired power-plants pumping pollution into the atmosphere in general. Until some kind of comprehensive study shows that apartment-to-apartment passive smoking is a real concern, this issue has to considered nothing more than a case of non-smokers’ panic. It certainly shouldn’t trump property rights and the reasonable fair use and enjoyment of one’s own home.
This isn’t really about health though; this is about the fact some people really hate the smell of cigarettes and the occasional whiff of tobacco drives them batty. Well, sometimes our neighbours annoy us. Boo-hoo. If it were possible to pass laws against loud sex, Jethro Tull, boiled cabbage, and getting bumped into on the subway, there are people who would want to do that too. They just can’t think up marginal-to-imaginary health concerns to make their case for those things. This is a city: a loud, busy, smelly, wonderful city. From time-to-time our fellow citizens are going to get under our skin for one reason or another. If you don’t like it, your Unabomber-style shack awaits you somewhere in the deep woods.
It’s funny that this issue has arisen the same week as a mentally ill man was found to have an apartment full of pigeons and cannibal mice. Yes, cannibal mice. Neighbours complained about the smell coming from this apartment for years before anything was done. Now, these are people who had a real issue, and still the state was reluctant to interfere in what they saw as a prosaic dispute between neighbours. If this doesn’t point out just how silly complaints about the occasional whiff of menthol and tobacco are, I’m not sure what would.
Non-smokers rights groups have made huge strides in the last few years. The protection that they have brought to all of us who like to eat in restaurants or fly on airplanes has to be admired, but on this issue they’ve finally gone power-mad. As long as smoking tobacco remains a legal activity, we should at least be allowed to do it in our own homes.