VANCOUVER — Vancouver’s park board will vote on a plan Monday that would prohibit smoking in all public parks and beaches, a move critics allege tramples on smokers’ rights and is simply political grandstanding.
The board will review a report prepared by park staff that recommends the ban on medical and environmental grounds.
“I have letters of support from the Heart and Stroke Foundation, I have emails from the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, I also have emails from leading no-smoking experts from the University of British Columbia,” said Raj Hundal, a park board commissioner.
“There is obviously scientific support toward bringing a ban.”
But Robert Holmes, president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the ban is virtually unenforceable and violates an individual’s freedom.
“From a civil libertarian perspective, we start off with the basic principle that if what you’re doing is your own free choice, and the only person it can cause harm to is yourself, then what business do other people or the state have to tell you not to do so?”
Smoking is the leading cause of death in B.C., while exposure to second-hand smoke is third.
The report, which was posted on the park board’s website last week, said cigarette butts are also a danger environmentally.
“We use machinery to collect the garbage that we have, the pop cans, the chip bags, but unfortunately the machinery that we utilize can’t pick up those cigarette butts that are embedded in the sand,” Hundal said in an interview.
“What quite often happens is those cigarette butts then wash up on our shores.”
Hundal said the smoking ban has been discussed since last year and an online survey was conducted on the park board’s website in the fall.
Those who clicked onto the website were presented with a pop-up window that asked if they wanted to take part.
Of the 608 responses recorded, 75 per cent favoured the smoking ban at beaches.
Ninety per cent of the survey’s respondents categorized themselves as non-smokers. The report said about 87 per cent of British Columbians don’t smoke.
When asked if an online poll on the park board’s website was the most scientific way to debate policy, Hundal said the response he’s personally received has only supported the findings.
“I’ve received hundreds and hundreds of emails on the issue, and phone calls. It’s safe to say eight out of 10 of the emails I’m getting are in favour of an outright ban,” he said.
But Holmes said while second-hand smoke is clearly a concern in enclosed spaces — Vancouver smokers are banned from lighting up inside public buildings or within six metres of their entrance — it’s more difficult to justify the prohibition in relation to open-air places, such as parks and beaches.
“There’s no evidence that that does create a health risk,” he said.
“I think (the ban is) far more motivated by politicians wanting to engage in some grandstanding and get some attention.”
Dan Romano, a member of Montreal-based Citizens Against Government Encroachment, or C.A.G.E., agreed.
Romano said stopping smokers from lighting up on Vancouver beaches might force them to drive elsewhere, which would have a different environmental effect than the park board’s envisioned.
“Contrary to tobacco smoke, car exhaust is a real health hazard outdoors,” he said in an email.
Hundal said Vancouver is only following in the footsteps of municipalities throughout Canada and the United States that have enacted similar bans in recent years.
One of those is White Rock, located about 40 minutes southeast of Vancouver.
Paul Stanton, the city’s director of planning and development services, said the impact has been mostly positive but there have been some unexpected problems.
“I know some of the restaurants and pubs down on the waterfront will say it’s pushed people out into the street from the patios and that’s created more litter on the sidewalks or more of a nuisance to pedestrians on the sidewalk,” he said.
“But for the most part, my understanding is that it has reduced smoking along the promenade and the pier, and places like that.”
The White Rock bylaw stipulates that any person convicted of smoking in a banned area can be fined between $100 and $2,000.
Hundal wouldn’t disclose how steep a fine Vancouver smokers might face if they ignore the ban, saying only that fines haven’t been ruled out.
“I think it’s safe to say that we believe there will be compliance,” he said when asked why smokers would pay any attention to the ban.
“People adhere to health bylaws.”
But Holmes said he’s skeptical smokers will simply fall in line, which would only further dilute the rule of law.
“If they’re going to put out something that they’re not serious about enforcing, then they really shouldn’t call it a law and make it something that is going to take away from the respect that people generally should have for the law,” he said.
Holmes said it’s ironic the park board will vote on the smoking ban just 18 hours before thousands of marijuana enthusiasts descend on downtown Vancouver to openly toke up to mark April 20.
The park board report says Vancouver Coastal Health and other agencies have offered to cover any initial costs that come with implementing the smoking ban.
The plan calls for an education phase that would commence this summer.
Vancouver’s park board oversees more than 200 parks and nearly 18 kilometres of beaches throughout the city.