ANOTHER VIEW

Smoking out a burning issue

The nation now faces a smoke-free society's biggest challenge: can smokers and nonsmokers get along?

CHARLES GORDON February 6 1989
ANOTHER VIEW

Smoking out a burning issue

The nation now faces a smoke-free society's biggest challenge: can smokers and nonsmokers get along?

CHARLES GORDON February 6 1989

Smoking out a burning issue

The nation now faces a smoke-free society's biggest challenge: can smokers and nonsmokers get along?

ANOTHER VIEW

CHARLES GORDON

This is really the second year of not smoking, but it feels like the first. Last year, when Toronto’s antismoking bylaw went into effect, there was a certain amount of noise made about it, but the full impact of not smoking did not reach certain outports until January, 1989, when smoking was banned in the federal public service.

The smoking ban meant no smoking at desks, no smoking in corridors, no smoking in the boss’s office, no smoking in washrooms, no smoking in the cafeteria, no smoking in designated smoking rooms. The federal Treasury Board, which imposed the ban, did not allow designated smoking rooms. The impact was most strongly felt in Ottawa, with its high concentration of public servants, but public servants are all over the country. Walk into your neighborhood post office, penitentiary or military base and you will find federal public servants not smoking.

On your way inside, you may see them outside, smoking. Because that is one of the things that has happened in the first month of the smoking ban. People not allowed to smoke inside have moved outside.

They did not do so without complaining. To the surprise of those who carry around the mental stereotype of public servants as docile souls, public servants in several government departments defied the ban and staged smokeins in cafeterias. For that they received considerable publicity and not much in the way of punishment. Finally, the powers-that-be began making noises about discipline, about fines, suspensions, dismissal. In one dramatic instance, the department of national defence sent military policemen into a cafeteria in Hull to take down the names of smokers.

The protest faded. At Defence, Statistics Canada and External Affairs—the hotbeds of protest—only handfuls of smokers continue to defy the ban. Still, the protest and its aftermath have given indications that banning smoking

will have effects greater than we knew. Although the latest statistics tell us that the percentage of smokers is down to 28, the smoking ban will still have an impact on virtually every social institution.

The workplace, of course, is forever altered. Twenty-eight per cent of the people disappear several times a day. In the wintertime, they disappear with their overcoats on. Key people cannot be found at key times. Meanwhile, where the smokers gather, strange, 10-minute alliances form between representatives of union and management, officers and men, deputy ministers and clerks—people who, until now, would not give each other the time of day, but now bum cigarettes from each other. Social and economic stratification is threatened.

The lobby is altered. In highrise office buildings, smokers congregate in the lobby, near the elevators. First impressions of many Canadian office buildings are smokier than they once were.

The parking lot is altered. Across Canada, wherever smokers have been denied the lobby, they are in the parking lot. Even in the winter, they are in the parking lot. When we as a society banned smoking, we did not reckon on this. Canada already faces a shortage of park-

ing lots. In major urban centres, the shortage is acute. Yet we have caused smokers to take up space that would ordinarily be taken up by cars. It will not be long before there is trouble.

The restaurant has changed. Reports from the early days of the smoking ban indicate that more tables in restaurants near government offices are occupied at more hours of the day. And the tables, at times, are more likely to be covered with papers than food, the result of smokers trying to find a more congenial work surface than that offered them at their places of employment. Already, restaurants are complaining. Inevitably, as more and more memos are submitted with spaghetti sauce stains on them, the smokers’ bosses will catch on.

But it may take the bosses a while to figure out what is going on, because what we are seeing, occasioned by the smoking ban, is a reversal of the traditional pattern of employee deviousness: where employees used to pretend they were working when they were really eating, now they are pretending to eat when they are really working. This is only one example of the powerful unforeseen effects of the smoke-free workplace. Soon, restaurants may decide to take advantage of the trend. The restaurant of the future may have a fax, photocopiers, postage meters, a water cooler and, yes, even a memo bar.

Despite the trend to the restaurant-as-office, it would not be entirely accurate to conclude that 28 per cent of work is being done in them. At least some of the 28 per cent is being done in shopping malls, particularly those located below government offices. One of the early and more noticeable consequences of the smoking ban is a boost in mall smoking, to the extent that shopkeepers have been heard to complain that their merchandise is beginning to smell of smoke.

A pattern emerges. Exiled from their traditional workplace, smokers are turning up in other areas and are finding themselves unwelcome there too. Although their numbers are declining, their visibility is increasing, as they huddle together in the rare places where smoking is allowed to continue. As their visibility increases, so do the measures directed at them, thus posing the biggest challenge of the smoke-free society: can we all, smokers and nonsmokers, get along?

With our tradition of civility and tolerance, we are not used to having outcasts in our society and are not sure how to treat them. A danger is that the majority may decide it enjoys having a class of outcasts, a group of people to feel superior to. And having created one class of outcasts, the majority may decide to create new ones—drinkers, punks, slow drivers, economic nationalists, dog owners. It is difficult to stop the impulse once it begins.

It is clear that the division of our society into smokers versus nonsmokers, Us versus Them, threatens our very survival as a nation. The need is for greater understanding. For that, we will have to get together and talk out our differences. And for that, unfortunately, we will need to go to the parking lot. Heaven knows where anyone will park.

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen