Quebec theatre incensed by $500 fine for fake cigarette smoked by actor

MONTREAL — Health inspectors who showed up at a recent Quebec City theatrical production took no issue with the actor centre stage in a giant penis costume.

But after watching another actor light up a fake cigarette, they informed the general manager of the venue hosting the play it would be getting a $500 ticket for contravening Quebec’s tough anti-smoking laws.

Now, Marc Gourdeau of Premier Acte theatre is weighing whether to contest the fine he will receive shortly following a staging of a French translation of the play “Conversations With My Penis.”

“It was hardly 30 years ago that it was the penis that would have shocked everyone, and the priests would have mounted the barricades,” Gourdeau said Thursday. “It’s a bit paradoxical.”

But in Quebec, even cigarettes filled with harmless sage are considered a hazard.

The Tobacco Control Act says any products “that are put to one’s mouth to inhale any substance that may or may not contain nicotine” are forbidden in “enclosed spaces where activities of a sports or recreational, judicial, cultural or artistic nature are presented” or in any enclosed space where the public is admitted.

Gourdeau said a pair of health inspectors showed up a few minutes after the beginning of the Dec. 3 performance, following up on a complaint.

After observing the lighting of a prop cigarette, they told Gourdeau the next day his theatre would be fined. They said they would spare the smoking actor, who also could have been fined up to $250.

Gourdeau noted the cigarette was fake — a sage-filled prop commonly used by actors on stage. “I put it on my spaghetti,” he said of the herb.

But Health Department spokeswoman Marie-Claude Lacasse said the fine is for allowing smoking — of anything — in a location where it is forbidden.

“All products, whether they contain nicotine or not, that are destined to be smoked are considered to be under the tobacco law,” Lacasse said.

Gourdeau sees a question of artistic liberty: Actors can depict other illegal acts on stage, such as murder or drug consumption, but smoking a prop cigarette — a completely legal act — isn’t permitted.

“Theatre is a mirror of our society in many cases,” he said. “It shows the best, and sometimes not the best.”

Gourdeau wondered how the law might impact other works.

“Imagine if someone was making a historical piece on the life of Rene Levesque,” Gourdeau said of the former Quebec premier who was well-known chain smoker. “Can we imagine a piece on Rene Levesque where the character doesn’t light up a single cigarette?”

“Conversations with my Penis,” written by New Zealand’s Dean Hewison, was presented from Nov. 27 to Dec. 7, but the cigarette was dropped from the script after the visit from the health officials.

At least one other Quebec City theatre is contesting a fine received under similar circumstances. Gourdeau said he hopes to convince more theatres to push back.

He said if the rationale is protecting theatre-goers from second-hand smoke, there is no danger from fine herbs.

“And if it’s a question of getting people to stop smoking — it’s not art’s mandate to do that,” he said.

Gourdeau said his theatre is considering whether to challenge the fine.

“For us, the challenge is not about not paying the $500 fine, but, in an ideal world, to create a jurisprudence that would resolve the problem once and for all,” he said.

In the meantime, Gourdeau has warned all upcoming acts not to use fake cigarettes on stage.

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