Health unit hasn’t decided on appeal yet

The Northwestern Health Unit still hasn’t decided whether to appeal last Tuesday’s ruling that it does not have the power to ban smoking in all enclosed public places in the name of public health.
Dr. Pete Sarsfield, CEO and medical officer of health for the health unit, said yesterday he’s still talking with the health unit’s lawyers on the matter and no that decision has been made.
The health unit had 30 days after the decision to appeal it, he added.
As reported in Friday’s Daily Bulletin, Dr. Sarsfield noted he was “surprised” and “disappointed” by the appeal board’s decision last Tuesday.
“It was a decision that allowed a proven health hazard to continue,” he remarked. “There is no question it’s a health hazard. Even the conservative ruling Tuesday called it a ‘significant health concern.’
“If it’s a ‘significant health concern,’ why can’t I do anything about it?” he wondered. “I can enforce hair nets, but I am not allowed to prevent toxins in the air?
“That’s what got the other medical officers [elsewhere in the province] baffled,” added Dr. Sarsfield, noting he’s received numerous phone calls over the last few days from not only other medical officers, but non-smokers’ rights groups and the Ontario Tobacco Network, expressing their disbelief at the ruling.
Dr. Sarsfield also stressed while some people have argued the legal costs incurred over the past year have been a waste, especially in light of last Tuesday’s decision, he said the facts should be set straight.
The total legal costs for 2003 equalled about $180,000. Of this amount, $35,000 was covered in private donations by individuals while another $125,000 was provided by the Ontario Tobacco Network.
This leaves only about $20,000 coming from the health unit (i.e., the taxpayer).
As reported in last Wednesday’s Times, the appeal board ruled the health unit did not have the authority to ban smoking in enclosed public places as Dr. Sarsfield had proposed to do under Section 13 of the Health Promotion and Protection Act.
Instead, it said the mandate of the medical officer of health—with respect to smoking, environmental tobacco smoke, and the general health concerns associated with them—is to promote smoke-free living through co-operation, education, and assistance in the enforcement of other provincial legislation such as the Tobacco Control Act.
The appeal board did note, however, that Ontario municipalities do have the right to enforce bylaws against smoking in enclosed public places.
While the issue has not come back before Fort Frances council since last week’s ruling, both Mayor Dan Onichuk and Coun. Struchan Gilson have expressed great interest in seeing it come back to the table in the immediate future.