Health unit still weighing appeal of ruling

The Northwestern Health Unit has 27 more days to decide whether to appeal Tuesday’s decision by the Health Services Review Appeal Board that the health unit does not have the power to ban smoking in all enclosed public places in the name of public health.
“There hasn’t been a decision yet,” Dr. Pete Sarsfield, CEO and medical officer of health for the health unit, said this morning, noting the health unit had 30 days after the decision to appeal it.
“Our lawyers are looking at it and they should get back to us next week,” he said. “If they say ‘No, the decision is not opposable or there’s a very low possibility of success,’ then I guess that’s the way it is.
“But I hope we can go on.”^Dr. Sarsfield noted he was “surprised” and “disappointed” by the appeal board’s decision 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 past 24 hours from not only other medical officers, but non-smokers’ rights groups and the Ontario Tobacco Network, expressing their disbelief at the ruling.
“There’s been some discouragement among the citizens,” he said, adding he feels the majority of the public would like to see smoking banned from all enclosed public places, too.
“It’s unfortunate they didn’t talk as loud as those opposing it,” Dr.
Sarsfield remarked. “We have to fight tobacco smoke as a public health agency, and we have to fight it as a society.”^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 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).
“I think it’s money well spent.
The prevention of disease is an expensive business,” Dr. Sarsfield said. “Apparently, no one seems to mind spending $30,000-35,000 to treat a cancer patient while we’re spending $180,000 to prevent that cancer.
“We can attribute at least 35 deaths a year in the region due to cancer [from tobacco smoke].
At $30,000-35,000 a person, that really adds up,” he added.
As reported in 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 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.