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This article was published 11/9/2017 (282 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
One of the harsh truths confronting politicians is that they will almost never be able to live up to the expectations of voters.
That is not to say politicians don’t occasionally deliver on promises, or solve problems. However, the list of things we expect of our politicians — lower taxes and enhanced services, good roads and good health care, fewer mosquitoes and milder winters — is long, bordering on unrealistic.
That said, there are a few areas of lawmaking and public policy where politicians should consistently live up to voter expectations. Like the need for a direct and rapid response to a pressing issue of public health or safety.
Lamentably, Winnipeg city council seems to have lost sight of this core principle of government. Faced with a well-documented public health threat from smoking on bar and restaurant patios, this edition of city council seems to be satisfied to dither while cigarettes burn all over the city.
The failure to include patios in the provincial and municipal smoking bans already in place has always stood as a gross omission in an otherwise effective policy. Despite this blind spot, many bars and restaurants had already banned smoking on outdoor patios.
This did not stop the anti-smoking lobbies from pressuring city hall to follow the example of other Canadian cities and put an end once and for all to smoking in any public place, indoor or outdoor. The city responded to the growing calls for smoke-free patios with a process that is a triumph of bureaucratic and political ineptitude.
In June, the city’s community services committee asked administrators to prepare a report about the implications of a smoking ban on patios. However, rather than plotting a clear, concise path to a patio smoking ban, the report outlines a process that could take another year to complete.
First, there will be a consultation that will involve two public opinion surveys. There will be an online survey that closes Sept. 26. That survey will be augmented by a more scientific survey of 600 Winnipeggers this fall. The data from these two reports will be released to the public in early 2018.
While all that is going on, the city is consulting directly with stakeholder groups, including the anti-smoking lobby and business organizations, particularly those that represent the hospitality industry, that would like to preserve some patios for smokers.
How can city council justify this prolonged and painful study of an issue that really doesn’t require much additional study? The commentary from councillors on this long-winded policy process has been nothing short of hilarious. Exhibiting a degree of difficulty worthy of an Olympic champion gymnast, Coun. Mike Pagtakhan, chairman of the community services committee, attempted to embrace the urgent need for a patio smoking ban while defending a pointless process that moves at a glacial pace.
"To me it’s a health issue," Pagtakhan said, reportedly with a straight face. "Second-hand smoke is a Class A carcinogen, but I want to hear what the public has to say."
To see the true absurdity in what Pagtakhan is saying, you need only swap in an issue like drunk driving in place of smoking. "Impaired driving is a really important health and public safety issue, but, you know, I’d like to take some time and consult with the drunks to make sure they’re OK with stiffer penalties."
It is right and fair to expect lawmakers to respond quickly and directly to an issue like impaired driving. Good lawmakers certainly consult with experts to make sure their decisions are based on fact, and to ensure whatever they are doing has the best chance of producing the desired outcome. Most provinces are in a constant state of study and review of impaired driving laws — introducing small tweaks on a regular basis. But it’s hard to imagine any government at any level taking a year to consult the public on impaired driving laws. It’s a clear threat to health and public safety, and governments tend to act with a sense of urgency. It is simply incomprehensible that the city wouldn’t take the same approach on smoking. It is even more incomprehensible when you consider that each year about 1,500 Canadians die from drunk driving, while more than 37,000 Canadians will die from smoking-related illnesses.
Those statistics suggest that Pagtakhan and the rest of city council should adopt a sense of urgency that is, at the very least, equal to the approach used to introduce measures to combat drunk driving. Of course, there is another important difference between drunk driving and smoking: almost no one lobbies for people to drive drunk; smoking, however, has its advocates.
In Winnipeg, the foremost proponent of a continuation of limited patio smoking is the Manitoba Hotel Association (MHA), which has been a thorn in the side of lawmakers whenever restrictions on smoking have been introduced. According to the MHA, a ban on any patio where food is served is acceptable, but there is still a business case for providing "safe, secure" places for smokers to engage in their deadly habits. Talk about tortured logic. Surely council understand that the ultimate purpose of smoking bans is not just protecting non-smokers from the perils of second-hand smoke, but also encouraging smokers to quit by making it more difficult to light up.
The more concessions we make for smokers, the less motivation we provide for people to quit. And the more all Manitobans, smokers and non-smokers alike, have to pay for the carnage of smoking-related illnesses.
The policy development process unfolding now at city hall is needlessly complicated, overly expensive and — given the health threat from smoking — morally unjustifiable.
The good news is that just about everyone at city hall thinks this is a pressing and important issue. Now, if we could only get council to act in a way that is consistent with the gravity of the problem.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Updated on Monday, September 11, 2017 at 7:53 AM CDT: Adds photo