10 years of kicking ash

no-smoking It was an innocuous beginning to one of the most acrimonious municipal debates ever held in the nation’s capital, a precursor of sorts to all the emotionally charged debates — LRT, Lansdowne redevelopment, zero means zero — that were to follow.

None of the follow-up acts, though, could match the city’s smoking bylaw for its furor and take-no-prisoners rancor. Before it was over, the city’s medical officer of health would need a bodyguard. Many of the city’s bars and nightclubs would be threatening civil disobedience.

“It was a nasty fight,” recalls Bob Chiarelli. “(The smoking bylaw) is so accepted today, but back then it was a different story.”

Ten years down the road, it is difficult to remember how contentious the issue was. Unless you were there. And were part of the story.

• • •

Dr. Robert Cushman says amalgamation was the opportunity he had been waiting for, and he started campaigning for a smoking bylaw within weeks of the new city coming into existence on Jan. 1, 2001.

“Suddenly, I was dealing with just one government,” remembers Ottawa’s former medical officer of health, who had long been a vocal non-smoking advocate. “All the various smoking bylaws from the eleven municipalities had to be harmonized. Amalgamation was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Dr. Cushman says he started having “discussions” with people at City Hall and quickly realized there might be enough support among the new councillors to do something “quite remarkable.”

The something quite remarkable would be enacting one of the strictest smoking bylaws in North America at the time. Chiarelli remembers those early discussions, and how he quickly became converted to Dr. Cushman’s cause.

“I remember we were having informal discussions on the matter and that Rob Cushman was the champion,” says Chiarelli. “I became very persuaded by the discussion. I came to respect the wide-range of experts who were convinced of the hazards of second-hand smoke.”

What the mayor was persuaded of, specifically, was that the new city needed a smoking bylaw that would become an example for the rest of the country.

“We debated just how far we should go and in the end we decided to go for the gold standard,” recalls Cushman. “We decided if we settled for anything less, we would just have the whole debate over again in a few years.”

The bylaw the city ended up passing that spring, and which went into effect on August 1, not only banned smoking in restaurants and diners but in every bar and nightclub in the city. It banned smoking in the workplace. Banned smoking near the entranceway to every public building in the city.

It even made it an offense for a bar or tavern to own an ashtray.

“We wanted a bylaw that would become the talk of the town,” says Dr. Cushman. “I would say we succeeded.”

• • •

Jill Scott, whose family owns the Chateau Lafayette on York St., remembers the winter of 2001 as though it were yesterday.

“We had just had a municipal election and a smoking bylaw was never an issue,” she remembers. “Then one day there’s a newspaper story about a public health survey and then suddenly the mayor is pushing for a city-wide smoking ban. Every bar owner in the city was shocked.”

A decade later, she still seems angry about how the smoking ban came into effect. How in eight months the hospitality industry in Ottawa changed fundamentally, and the people lobbying for the bylaw never seemed willing to compromise.

In order to fight the bylaw, she helped found the Pub and Bar Coalition of Ontario. PUBCO took the city to court, arguing the city had no right to enact such a sweeping bylaw.

The case went all the way to the Ontario Court of Appeal before the city won. Shortly afterwards, PUBCO ran out of money, and that was the end of litigation.

Despite the bitter fight, Scott admits today that the bylaw has not been as bad as she once feared.

“I’m a non-smoker, and I enjoy working in a non-smoking environment,” she says. “Our business has finally come back as well. It’s taken 10 years, but we’re finally back at the level we were in 2001.

“It’s just a shame the city had had to steamroller over people to get what it wanted.”

• • •

The effect of the smoking bylaw on Ottawa’s hospitality sector was hotly debated for years after the bylaw went into effect. PUBCO — until it shut its doors in 2005 —released regular reports with a list of bars and taverns that had shut down after Aug. 1, 2001. Scott says the group stopped counting when the total passed 100.

The City of Ottawa also released regular reports, that listed the number of restaurants and bars that had opened since the bylaw went into effect. The city’s list also totalled more than 100.

Edgar Mitchell — another founder of PUBCO — doesn’t know what to make of the competing stats, although he has some stats of his own that make the debate, at least on a personal level, rather academic.

Sitting in the back of a Tim Hortons restaurant, he shows me the graph he keeps tucked away in a desk at his home. He points at a baseline, explaining the line represents average monthly sales at the Duke of Somerset — the tavern he once owned — for the five years before the smoking bylaw.

Running through the baseline are peaks and valleys that represent good months and bad. March — God Love St. Patrick’s Day — is nearly off the chart. January, however, is a shallow valley. Much of the graph is as stable as a topographical map.

“This, right here,” and he points at a dot on the graph, “that’s when full compliance of the smoking bylaw kicked in.”

I look to where he is pointing, and see the graph start to change.

The line representing monthly sales suddenly goes down like an elevator cut loose from its cable.

“This is when I had to shut her down,” and he points at another dot on the graph, the date Oct. 31, 2004 etched beside it. “It took just three years to put me out of business.”

Edgar Mitchell sits back and shakes his head. The Duke of Somerset was a family business going back four generations. It used to be called the Ritz Hotel, one of the best taverns on Bank St. Today, you can’t find a tavern on Bank St.

“Maybe the bylaw was a good thing,” he says, taking a sip of coffee, looking around the restaurant. “But when people tell you that no one suffered because of it, don’t believe them.”

• • •

Cushman readily admits some businesses went under because of the bylaw, but goes on to say this was “the cost of evolution. You don’t see a lot of blacksmiths around these days either.”

He also says, 10 years down the road, it is hard to argue the bylaw has been anything but a success. Dr. Isra Levy, the current medical officer of health, is quick to agree.

“The bylaw has been a success,” says Levy. “The statistics bear this out.”

According to Ottawa Public Health, 19% of people in Ottawa over the age of 18 called themselves daily smokers in 2001. By 2009, that figure had dropped to 9.8%.

In 2001, the percentage of people in Ottawa who called themselves “current” smokers — that being smoking at least a couple of times a week — was 24%. In 2009, that figure had dropped to 15%.

“You can’t attribute all of this to the smoking bylaw,” says Levy. “But did it help bring the numbers down? Absolutely it did.”

Later this year, Ottawa Public Health will conduct another survey on smoking, this one to determine if the current smoking bylaw goes far enough. The survey will ask respondents if they are in favour of a smoking ban at city parks, beaches and in apartments.

For those who lived through the events of 10 years ago, there is a deja vu feeling to this latest development. Although their current opinions may surprise you.

“I would not be in favour of extending the bylaw to include apartments,” says Chiarelli. “I think we have pushed the envelope as far as we should right now.”

Cushman also says an expansion of the bylaw might have to wait.

“I agree there are problems in apartments, and maybe we need to address those problems,” he says. “Beaches and parks are problematic, though. I don’t know what the answer there might be. Perhaps designated smoking areas of some sort.”

Levy, however, is not as hesitant as those who waged the non-smoking battle 10 years ago.

“People being exposed to second-hand smoke continues to be a grave concern of mine,” he says. “(The upcoming survey) will let us know what people think, and I suspect they will be in favour of taking the next step. I don’t think our work is done.”

As for the people who fought so hard against the original bylaw, Scott says any changes will have little effect on her.

“This will be someone else’s fight,” she says. “Not being able to smoke on the beach, or in your apartment, seems a bit strong to me, but then, so did not being able to smoke in a tavern.”

Mitchell also says this next fight — if there even is one — will be someone else’s. He has never been a smoker, and never became a smoking-rights advocate, the way some people did 10 years ago.

Besides, he is living a quiet life these days. A few years after losing his family business, he took a job at the Barrhaven Home Depot, where you can find him most days working in the tool rental section. He will turn 65 this year.

“I lead a very different life today,” he says. “I’m the cost of evolution. That’s the expression, isn’t it?”

source: www.ottawasun.com

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