Toronto Bans Smoking

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on July 15, 1996. Partner content is not updated.

The doors of The Pilot Tavern were wide open last Wednesday evening, but the unseasonably cool breezes wafting through the popular Toronto pub did little to clear the air. Like the tobacco haze hanging over the long, dark bar, a tough, new antismoking bylaw threatened to poison the atmosphere.

Toronto Bans Smoking

The doors of The Pilot Tavern were wide open last Wednesday evening, but the unseasonably cool breezes wafting through the popular Toronto pub did little to clear the air. Like the tobacco haze hanging over the long, dark bar, a tough, new antismoking bylaw threatened to poison the atmosphere. Only a day earlier, city politicians had voted to ban smoking in all restaurants, bars and entertainment facilities beginning on Jan. 1, 1997. "Narrow-minded and stupid," were the first printable comments offered by one angry patron, artist Dan Dunn. "Where are we supposed to go if we can't go to our local watering hole and have a glass of beer and a cigarette?" asked his companion, laborer Mark Huckvale. "Are we supposed to stay at home?" Well, yes, argue some nonsmokers. "If people want to smoke they can do so in their own homes or they can go outside," said Leo McQuillen, drinking with friends in a nearby booth - one of them discreetly exhaling smoke. "It's about time," the 36-year-old materials purchaser said, nursing a beer. "I've breathed secondhand smoke practically all of my adult life - cigarettes are taking a toll on people's lives."

Canada's 6.2 million smokers are facing unprecedented pressure to butt out. The grim statistics speak for themselves: last year, according to the National Cancer Institute, almost 17,000 Canadians died from lung cancer, while according to Health Canada another 23,000 succumbed to other smoking related diseases. Over the past decade, smoke-free government buildings, airplanes, trains, schools, hospitals, workplaces and shopping malls have become the norm across the country. This spring, Vancouver rekindled the issue when it became the first Canadian city to prohibit smoking in public areas open to children, including restaurants. And Victoria introduced a bylaw requiring all hospitality establishments to be 60-per-cent nonsmoking by September - and 100-per-cent smoke free by January, 1999. Several Ontario municipalities - including Vaughan, Guelph, Windsor and London - have also passed legislation to eliminate restaurant smoking.

The trend is blazing across the United States, too. Almost 50 cities - including New York - have eliminated smoking in restaurants, and 26 prohibit smoking in bars. But Toronto is the first Canadian city to take the war against nicotine into smokers' favorite haunts - bars, pubs and nightclubs. And unlike many American jurisdictions, Toronto will not permit even limited smoking in separate ventilated areas. After recent setbacks - including tax cuts by Ottawa and some provincial governments that led to an increase in cigarette sales - antismoking advocates are heartened by the city's bold new assault on tobacco. "Lung cancer is a death warrant," says Garfield Mahood, executive director of the Non-Smokers' Rights Association. "This is a major step forward."

But the hospitality industry, dissenting politicians and even some nonsmokers argue that Toronto's bylaw - one of the toughest in North America - is too extreme. "Smoking is disgusting," says nonsmoker Stephan Hamilton-Clark, another Pilot customer. "But it's a freedom - you shouldn't stop people from doing what they enjoy." On Friday, three days after the bylaw passed, Toronto Mayor Barbara Hall asked city council to soften the legislation by allowing smoking in separate ventilated areas for up to 25 per cent of a restaurant's seating - an exemption supported by the city's board of health. But the council refused, with some members citing the need for a level playing field between large establishments and smaller ones unable to afford the cost of constructing a separate smoking area. "We made a mistake in rejecting separate ventilated areas," admitted Hall. "It looks like penalizing smokers rather than protecting nonsmokers." A backlash by irate smokers, she fears, could derail the city's ultimate goal of becoming completely smoke free by the year 2000. "This bylaw requires goodwill," notes Hall, who says that she enjoys an "occasional" cigarette. "We will not have an army of enforcers out there."

Toronto bar and restaurant owners and employees fear that they will lose battalions of customers once the bylaw takes effect. "There will be a major impact on Toronto's tourism and hospitality industry," argues Paul Oliver, president of the Ontario Restaurant Association, noting that at least 50 per cent of sales in bars are from smokers. And because the bylaw does not apply to surrounding municipalities - some of which start on the other side of busy metropolitan thoroughfares - Oliver predicts that patrons will simply migrate to nearby establishments that permit tobacco. "People will go to North York or Scarborough or Etobicoke to smoke," predicts Oliver. "In some cases, it's just a matter of crossing the street." Mel Lastman, mayor of North York, which shares neighborhood fences with North Toronto, agrees. "It's insanity," Lastman told Maclean's. "They're putting themselves out of business and North York is open for business."

In Vancouver - where diners have been unable to light up in restaurants since May 31 - smokers have indeed been heading across the street and across town, to pubs and taverns where they can still enjoy a cigarette even if they have to settle for simpler fare. The Restaurant & Foodservices Association of British Columbia claims that the city's restaurant owners are now facing serious revenue declines. As a result, it has launched a lawsuit in the province's Supreme Court, arguing that the ban discriminates against eating establishments, and asking the court to strike down the bylaw. In the meantime, restaurateurs like Corina Aquino, owner of Moose's Down Under, have decided to defy the law. As soon as she removed ashtrays from her downtown restaurant last month, Aquino recalls, customers began to frequent local bars where smoking is still permitted. A nonsmoker and an asthmatic, Aquino estimates that, in June alone, sales declined by 30 per cent, or more than $10,000, as a result of the smoking ban. Now, she says her customers are trickling back to her newly reopened 50-seat smoking section.

But Dr. Frederic Bass, chairman of the B.C. Medical Association's tobacco and illness committee, and other health advocates argue that, in time, a smoke-free environment will attract more customers than it drives away. Bass points out that more than 70 per cent of B.C. residents - more than in any other province - do not smoke. Others experience severe allergic reactions to secondhand smoke. In Ontario, according to a recent report by the Tobacco Research Unit at the University of Toronto, about 52 per cent of restaurant customers avoid certain establishments because of the smoke. And while no research is available on the economic impact of a smoking ban on bars, last month the Conference Board of Canada released a paper showing that two-thirds of 66 restaurants in a nationwide survey did not experience a drop in sales after the introduction of a nonsmoking policy. Bass also points out that smoke-free businesses pay less for fire insurance and cleaning rugs and linens. They may also avoid future legal suits from nonsmoking employees. Studies show that lung cancer is nearly twice as prevalent among bar and restaurant employees than in the general public. According to Michael Perley, director of the Ontario Campaign for Action on Tobacco: "Bar workers are routinely exposed to levels of secondhand smoke six times higher than in the home of a smoker."

That is a risk some employees are willing to take. "I'm not worried about secondhand smoke," states Matthew Shorter, a bartender at The Pilot and a pack-a-day smoker. "I'm prepared to live with that to make a living." Brigitte Barie, manager of Thursday's - a fashionable Montreal bar that, like most Quebec establishments, does not cater to nonsmokers - also shrugs it off. "Almost everybody smokes here," says Barie, calling Toronto's bylaw "stupid." And, she adds, "it goes together, alcohol and smoking - I am not saying that it's a good thing, but it's reality." But more than just tobacco is going up in smoke, according to Toronto Councillor Kay Gardner. "We don't have the resources to indulge people who smoke," she says, pointing out that the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse estimates that the economic and health costs of smoking reach $9.6 billion annually. That's a price that leaves many nonsmokers fuming.

Maclean's July 15, 1996