Stoking up a burning debate

Stewart MacLeod May 12 1986

Stoking up a burning debate

Stewart MacLeod May 12 1986

Stoking up a burning debate


Stewart MacLeod

When it comes to perfecting the ancient art of counterproduction, the boycott of Air Canada by our four major cigarette manufacturers is right up there with Kurt Waldheim’s serialized war memories and the Reverend Jimmy Jones’s last revival meeting in Guyana.

For starters, when was the last time you heard of anyone boycotting a government-owned business to protest a restrictive measure which that same government feels is not restrictive enough? Not clear? Okay, would school kids boycott a teacher’s class to protest a shorter recess when they know the principal wants an excuse to eliminate the recess entirely?

Anyway, what’s happened makes you wonder whether “moles” from some strident antismokers’ organization have finally worked their way into the blue-haze boardrooms of the tobacco industry. Decisions carrying such consequences just don’t happen. One can only suspect enemy infiltration.

Even Transport and Health officials were laughing, for heaven’s sake. And the last time two federal departments giggled at the same time was back in 1917, when personal income tax was introduced and Sir Robert Borden called it “a temporary measure.”

No, what we have in this boycott of Air Canada by four major cigarette manufacturers is a botching of bewildering proportions. Unless, of course, it suddenly turns out that secondhand smoke, when filtered through an aircraft ventilation system at 27,000 feet, magically cures herpes. In that case, as Fotheringham might say, there will be alacritous apologies.

Okay, we’ll recap.

Air Canada set the groundwork—just a turn of phrase—for the whole shebang by deciding it would, as a three-month experiment, ban smoking on 44 of its 76 daily Rapidair flights in the TorontoOttawa-Montreal triangle. The longest of these flights, it’s worth noting, is about 68 minutes, which means the allowable puffing time, is, say, 55 minutes—roughly the length of a Lutheran church service. These, incidentally, have been nonsmoking events since 1517.

But unbeknownst to Air Canada when the experiment was launched in the midst of Canadian Cancer Month,

the four major cigarette manufacturers had had enough.

“The manufacturers have been quiet for too long,” said an official of Rothman’s.

“There are an awful lot of people out there who resent being treated like social lepers,” said an official at Benson & Hedges.

Air Canada’s ban is “unfair to smokers,” said the president of Imperial Tobacco. So these companies, along with RJR-Macdonald Inc., announced that their 6,800 employees were being asked to fly on other airlines. Air Canada, in the words of one official, would be reduced to a carrier of “last resort.”

Ouch! And it wasn’t just the potential annual loss of $1.8 million that mattered. It was the indignity of knowing that if certain Canadian executives were flying in the vicinity of, say, the Lakehead, they might walk defiantly

Nonsmokers have clearly gained the upper hand. The war over puffing in public places has been effectively decided.

across the bow of an Air Canada jet and clamber aboard Bearskin Air.

Were this 1966 instead of 1986, it might have done just that. But something significant has happened in the meantime. Nonsmokers have clearly gained the upper hand; the war over puffing in public places has been effectively decided; from now on it’s just a question of timing the mopping-up operations which, admittedly, could take years.

Even to the diehard backers of this coughers’ last stand, it must be painfully apparent that the counterproductivity will spread to most remaining battle fronts. The action not only smoked out—sorry—and infuriated every anticigarette and pro-health group in the country, but it also came as a glorious gift to a federal government in search of excuses to extend smoking bans.

Not a public relations coup, one might say. Not at all like the brewers and distillers who, when faced with new booze-limiting driving laws last year, responded with advertisements and billboards suggesting, in effect, less drinking.

In no time flat, Air Canada officials said a letter had been received from the angry president of “a very large corporation” announcing a retaliatory boycott. He had asked his employees to cease doing business with a drug store chain and a trust company, either owned or about to be owned by Imasco Ltd., the parent company of Imperial Tobacco.

Meanwhile, back in Ottawa, the boycott seems to have given federal cabinet ministers just the opening they were looking for. For years now, various prementioned groups, along with air transport and flight crew associations, have been lobbying for a total smoking ban on Canadian aircraft. But not even politicians like to rile any segment of society, even smokers, needlessly. So they have been awaiting for what’s now known as “a window of opportunity.” They got it.

And it wasn’t long before the word was out; either the airlines will ban the weed or the federal government will.

“There is a resolve that smoking will stop,” said an official spokesman for Transport Minister Don Mazankowski. And he was talking about all flights in Canada.

Another official in the office of Health Minister Jake Epp could scarcely wait to nod agreement. Furthermore, he offered, buses and trains would most certainly be next.

Then, there are federal buildings. The headquarters of three government departments have already been declared smoke-free zones and they, rather naturally, include Health and Welfare. Pressure is building to extend the ban and, should it go all the way, we could be talking about nearly

600.000 federal employees.

. . .Terribly sorry to bore you with more statistics, but please take one last breath: the latest figures, for 1985, suggest that about 33 per cent of adult Canadians are smokers—down from 43 per cent in 1965—which means some

200.000 federal smoke-inhalers would, at one per hour, stand to sacrifice up to 1.6 million cigarettes a day. Whew!

Boycott the federal government!

Better still, wait to see what the House of Commons does with a bill from Tory MP Patrick Boyer that would ban smoking in scores of public places, including the Parliament Buildings themselves.

Boycott Question Period!

Come to think of it. .. .No, forget it.

Allan Fotheringham is on leave.

Stewart MacLeod is Ottawa columnist for Thomson News Service.