If smokers are singled out, why not greenhouse gas emitters?

Climate change a greater threat to public health than secondhand smoke

Graphic by Evan Tremblay.

Winnipeg is poised to ban smoking on patios, the last major city in Canada to do so. The ban, set to go into effect April 1, and the logic behind it, represents the kind of public policy-making that we have a right to expect from city council.

This ban affects a specific subset of the population – smokers – negatively. It limits a previously enjoyed freedom in the name of public health. It is not necessarily popular with business owners, who would like to decide for themselves what their patrons are allowed to do while spending money in their establishments.

Unpopularity with the people directly affected by it, and especially with business owners, is usually the death-knell of a bylaw or other action by council. Consider the proposal to build a seven-kilometer multi-modal corridor along St. Anne’s Road, scrapped in 2016 by councillor Brian Mayes due to “local business opposition to building a cycling corridor.”

The smoking ban will come into effect not because it is inherently good public policy – though it is inarguably good public policy to limit exposure to carcinogens, such as diesel exhaust, in public places.

The smoking ban will come into effect because smokers are widely maligned in our society that values so much the semblance of good health and vitality. A society that valued actual health, rather than the idea of it, would not make such a fetish out of gym-muscles and yoga pants.

If councillors were serious about the health of Winnipeggers, there are policies that would be much more effective in improving it than driving people who self-medicate with tobacco out of the last places that they can enjoy their vice while sitting down in public.

Having an adequately funded, affordable, efficient public transit system is much better for people’s health than having a population reliant on automobiles. Less cars on the roads means less exhaust and better air quality for everyone, and people taking public transit actually have to walk short distances to get to transit stops. What is city council doing to even discourage the use of automobiles, as the cost of public transit goes up and the quality of service goes down?

Having dense, walkable, vibrant neighbourhoods is much better for people’s health than having a sedentary population living in isolated suburbs. Again and again, however, we see the approval of new suburbs by city council, draining limited municipal resources away from established neighbourhoods.

Having city-wide sustainability initiatives that allow for resilient neighbourhoods  would be a boon to public health, and yet basic measures towards this – such as a city-wide composting program, where some have existed in other Canadian cities for decades – are repeatedly put off.

Climate change represents an existential threat to the health of all Winnipeggers, whether they smoke or not. And yet, the city takes no action to curtail the excesses of that portion of the population – auto-addicted suburbanites – who contribute the most to it. As a constituency with more votes than smokers, the former are pandered to.

There is a distinct disconnect between the magnitude of the threat to public health posed by secondhand smoke and climate change: secondhand smoke increases your risk of cancer, whereas climate change may cause the extinction of our species. The disconnect in magnitude of Winnipeg’s response to these two real threats is laughable – provided you have a dark, macabre sense of humour.

Speaking on the possibility of a smoking ban last year, councillor John Orlikow said “I think it’s time to look at it, at least, and bring it forward for consideration. We do know the effects of smoking on a patio.”

The effects of climate change are no less well known, and deserve to be addressed by city council in exactly the same manner as smoking has been. Though it be unpopular with those affected, and though it be unpopular with business owners, city council should begin to pass bylaws aimed at protecting public health by curtailing activities that contribute to climate change through the emission of carbon dioxide.

Like the smoking ban, this would affect some people much more than others. It would affect people whose lifestyles cause a decline in the health of the environment, and of future generations, more than those whose lifestyles do not.

What city council has done is show that they are perfectly willing to identify an activity (and by extension, the group of people who engage in that activity) and legislate against it. As much as this may rile up the group of people legislated against, public health is a pretty good justification – if, indeed, that is the reason a specific subset of citizens has been legislated against.