Canada's weapons in smoke wars

From smoking bans in effect Jan. 1 to stricter tobacco warning labels,

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The bartenders at Fred's Uptown Tavern in Vancouver are so opposed to a new ban on public smoking - aimed at protecting their health - that they are suiting up in hygienic overalls and gas masks. That way they can still light their customers' cigarettes, and stay within the law.

But their novel protest isn't likely to move authorities.

Exposure to secondhand smoke has been designated an important workplace health issue. As of Jan. 1, the Workers' Compensation Board of British Columbia has effectively banned smoking in indoor workplaces, including bars, restaurants, casinos, hotels, nursing homes - and even prisons.

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It's "the most comprehensive workplace protection from secondhand smoke in Canada," says Dr. Perry Kendall, chief public health officer for British Colombia.

The new standards give business owners several options for protecting workers from smoke, including outright prohibition of smoking, a provision for a separately ventilated smokers' break area, or "other equally effective means." This is where the gas masks at Fred's come in.

While these restrictions are cutting edge in Canada, they're just catching up to antismoking measures in some US states and cities. Still, on other fronts, Canada is breaking new ground in battling health risks associated with smoking.

"From a global point of view, what we do in Canada is important," says David Sweanor, an international consultant and lawyer at the Non-Smokers' Rights Association in Ottawa. "Canada can play a role in the fight against the multinationals" that are the major players in the tobacco industry worldwide.

Canada cries conspiracy

Last month, for example, Canada filed a US$1 billion lawsuit against cigarettemaker R.J. Reynolds International and related companies, in Syracuse, N.Y., under a tough US antiracketeering statute (RICO). The suit alleges that Reynolds and its corporate kin conspired to smuggle untaxed cigarettes into Canada in such large volumes as to force Ottawa to roll back the tax on cigarettes. This conspiracy, Ottawa officials allege, inflicted damage on "Canada's national strategy to reduce tobacco consumption, especially among young people." The strategy was to raise the tax on cigarettes, because studies have shown that as prices for cigarettes rise, consumption drops. But the flood of low-priced cigarettes smuggled into the country, they argue, undercut those efforts.

The percentage of young Canadians who smoke (ages 15 to 19) jumped from 21 percent in 1991 to 31 percent five years later, after the tax cut, said Health Minister Allan Rock.

This lawsuit "opens a whole new front in the tobacco wars," says Matthew Meyers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington. If Canada succeeds, other countries may also file similar suits. Lawsuits alleging smuggling are seen by some analysts as having stronger legal ground than those seeking recovery of health-care costs.

Indeed, on Dec. 30, US district Judge Paul Friedman dismissed a lawsuit brought in Washington, D.C., by Guatemala against Philip Morris USA and other tobacco firms, essentially seeking to recover from the cigarettemakers some of the costs of treating tobacco-related illness. It is the first ruling on the legality of claims brought by foreign governments. Similar suits have been filed by Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ukraine, and Venezuela.

Steven Rissman, assistant general counsel for Philip Morris, hailed the decision: "This opinion stands squarely for the proposition that these cases are based on a flawed legal theory and have no place in our courts."

On another front, Canada is expected to soon introduce stricter warning-label standards on tobacco products. Already, the size and visibility of the warning labels are "far superior to what we have in the US," says Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.

The new labels are still "in development," a government official says, but they may require warnings to occupy up to 60 percent of the front of a package. Sweanor says that the government is looking for ways to give people not just warnings against tobacco but practical tips about how to give it up

"It's a global fight," the government official says of antismoking efforts. "It's important that best practices get picked up."

Meanwhile, back in British Columbia, which has the lowest rate of smoking of all the Canadian provinces, the Workers' Compensation Board is gearing up for tough enforcement in bars. "We don't intend to be the smoking police," board spokesman Scott McCloy says. "We intend to be resolute and reasonable in our enforcement."

Enforcement is to be based on tips to a toll-free "snitch line," as some are calling it. Investigations are supposed to kick in after four complaints have been made against a violator. An employer found in violation faces fines starting at US$1,000 per incident.

Bad for business?

The provincial capital, Victoria, made its bars and restaurants smoke-free last January, and Mr. McCloy cites statistics showing that the new ban will not hurt business. Sales taxes and payrolls have held steady in Victoria, he says, and sales by the Liquor Distribution Branch, from which bars and restaurants are legally required to buy their alcoholic beverages, were up 4.5 percent in the pub and cabaret sector for the first nine months of 1999 over the previous year.

"A lot of businesses were quite concerned" about the ban when it was introduced in Victoria, says Barbara Carver, policy and public relations coordinator for the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce. Many neighborhood pubs and restaurants found that their business increased, she says, but other establishments with a different clientele saw business fall away.

"It hasn't been a high-profile issue," she says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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