Tough new Alberta smoking restrictions to include non-tobacco water pipes

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Cafe customers in Abu Dhabi say a ban on shisha smoking in venues along the Corniche will affect businesses and the culture of the capital

Alberta isn't known as a trail blazer when it comes to restricting personal behaviour, but a proposed ban on using non-tobacco hookahs in public places probably qualifies.

The Progressive Conservative government is putting its weight behind a private member's bill that would outlaw the sale of flavoured tobacco products to minors.

And it's introduced legislation of its own to ban the use of "tobacco-like products" as are used in water pipes in bars, restaurants and other public places that are already out of bounds to tobacco smokers, the Edmonton Journal reported.

Bill 33 will also ban stores from selling cigarillos individually and ban smoking in vehicles carrying children, which some other provinces such as British Columbia already do.

The legislature is already debating Bill 206, introduced last year, which addressed the sale of tobacco with a "characterizing flavour," such as candy-scented cigars and cigarillos, and fruity chewing tobacco, the Journal said.

"We are here for the singular purpose of protecting the health of children and youth in our society for the long term," Health Minister Fred Horne said, according to CTV News.

The legislative package drew praise from anti-smoking activists.

"Collectively they represent some of the strongest tobacco control measures in Canada," Les Hagen, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, told CTV News.

Flavoured tobacco is seen as a way of luring kids to start smoking. The Journal said a recent study found almost 30,000 Alberta teens use some form of it. Single sales of cigarillos and individual cigarettes make them more affordable for kids.

[ Related: Toronto preparing to toughen outdoor smoking ban, joining other major Canadian cities ]

"In recent years in Canada and in other countries, the tobacco industry has increasingly used flavours as part of a marketing strategy," a report published last month by the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit (OTRU) said.

"Flavouring tobacco products with fruit, candy, menthol and other flavours makes tobacco products more attractive, especially for youth and young adults. In response, a growing number of governments worldwide are adopting legislation to restrict or prohibit flavours in tobacco products."

On average, roughly one in five Canadians over the age of 13 smokes, according to Statistics Canada, a figure that's been largely static for the last five years. Alberta hews close to the average at 21.6 per cent, with the highest rates among provinces and territories found in Nunavut (54.3 per cent) and Newfoundland and Labrador (26.1 per cent).

All provinces ban smoking in public places to some degree, according to a CBC News survey of legislation in 2009. British Columbia has perhaps the strongest web of anti-smoking laws, including smoke-free cars carrying children, along with municipal bylaws barring smoking in some open spaces such as public beaches.

Alberta's proposed water-pipe ban is pretty novel, though, and worries owners of eateries who up to now have been allowed to have them as long as they used non-tobacco flavoured herbal mixes, the Journal said.

Though the government says these establishments will have up to 18 months to transition to the new rules, they're concerned outlawing shisha (water-pipe smoking) will drive them out of business.

“Shisha is 80 per cent, if not more, of our sales,” Ghada Ghazal, who with his wife owns Co Co Di Mediterranean restaurant, told the Journal. “People come here to smoke shisha, socialize and eat.”

The Ghazais belong to Safe Shisha, a group of restaurant owners pushing for regulated shisha spaces, including special licensing and minimum ventilation standards.

[ Related: Broader smoking ban called for in B.C. ]

Lobbyist Don Martin said the new legislation is wrong-headed, estimating 70 eateries offering shisha could close, with a loss of 400 jobs.

However, research has shown the products in water pipes often contain cancer-causing chemicals and their second-hand smoke could be unhealthy too, said Dr. James Talbot, Alberta's chief officer of health.

Opposition Wlidrose party MLA Shayne Saskiw thinks the legislative package is heavy handed. While young people should be protected from the lure of flavoured tobacco and cheap single cigarillos, Saskiw believes responsible adults should be able to buy what they want, the Journal said.

It's an age-old dilemma in the steady ratcheting down of spaces where people can smoke. How much do you restrict individual behaviour – tobacco's not illegal – in the name of a greater public good?

Nixing hookah-smoking where tobacco isn't used seems a bit extreme without evidence the smoke is harmful to others. As a lifelong non-smoker, I won't lose any sleep over it, but as long as children and restaurant workers are protected, perhaps there's room for compromise.