Monday, Sept. 24 the Niagara region held the first of two public hearings regarding a proposed bylaw that would see smoking banned inside public places, with no allowances for designated smoking areas. Regional council chambers were packed as more than 100 people crowded in. This was the public’s first opportunity to formally address the council members who will eventually decide whether or not to pass the proposed bylaw. Originally scheduled as the only public meeting on the issue, Debbie Zimmerman, Niagara region chair, announced that the large number of people who wished to address council could not be accommodated in one meeting, and another was scheduled for Oct. 11.
The meetings give the public the opportunity to address members of council. According to David Eke, councilor, it “transfers the responsibility of the proposal from the regional health officials and places it with the regional council.”
Many of those opposed to the proposed bylaw included employees and partons of various bingo halls. Decked out in T-shirts reading “Support choice, Support bingo,” they argued that many of the people who participate in bingo are smokers and if they are no longer allowed to smoke while they play, they will either go where smoking is allo or simply stop playing. They also pointed out that without money from bingo, many of the charities that bingo halls support would suffer a severe loss of revenue.
Supporters of the proposed bylaw, which made up the majority of the night’s speakers, included members of the health community as well as officials from other regions, such as Waterloo, that have already adopted similar non-smoking bylaws. Michael Perley, director of the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco, told councilors that although four lawsuits had been filed in other regions adopting a similar bylaw, all had failed. As such, he said, they should not let the potential legal ramifications have an impact on their decision.
Although, the proposed bylaw is evoking strong reactions from both sides, it is by no means a new issue. On Nov. 6, 1997 Niagara Regional Council passed Bylaw 8901-97, which severely limited the places where smoking would be allowed within the region. Should the proposed bylaw go through, it would be the third time in just under four years that it has been amended from its original form. The original bylaw prohibited people from smoking or holding a lighted tobacco product and prohibited the placement of ashtrays in an enclosed public place. Exceptions were made for restaurants, bingo hall, bowling centres, as well as recreational and/or sports facilities, which were allowed to have designated smoking areas. Within seven months of the bylaw being passed, it was amended to allow shopping malls to also operate designated smoking areas. Now, less then three and a half years later, the region’s medical health officer has put forward a proposal to further amend the bylaw.
Rather than weakening the bylaw, however, the proposal is calling council to eliminate all existing exemptions. This means all public facilities in the region would become 100 per cent smoke-free zones, with no allowances for designated smoking areas.
If all goes as planned, the regions medical health officer would like to see the bylaw approved by council and made law by May 2002. Concerns have been raised with regard to people driving just outside the region to a municipality such the amalgamated Hamilton-Wentworth County, where they can smoke while enjoying dinner.
Cathy Brewster of the Community Gaming Development Corporation, addressed council and said that statistics showed a large percentage of people would be willing to drive up to an hour away to go to a bingo hall where they can smoke. Fears of losses are not lost on the business owners and councillors of Hamilton-Wentworth County.
Although the region was officially amalgamated into one large city at the beginning of the year, each of the former municipalities that amalgamated have retained their individual smoking bylaws.
According to Andrea Kita of the Healthy Lifestyle and Disease Prevention branch of Hamilton’s tobacco hotline, a unified bylaw for the entire region has been proposed to council and at this time. A subcommittee has been established to study the bylaws in Waterloo.
Due to the number of people who were unable to speak at the Sept. 24 meeting, another has been scheduled for Oct. 11, also to be held in the Niagara Regional council chambers.
The issue should be brought to vote by council next spring.