Mayors speak out on ‘health hazard’ notice

An official notice issued by the Northwestern Health Unit last week declaring second-hand smoke a “health hazard” has received mixed responses—or even outright defiance—from some municipalities in the Rainy River and Kenora districts.
“At this point in time, we don’t plan on responding before the May 31 deadline,” Fort Frances Mayor Glenn Witherspoon said yesterday, referring to a request in the notice that asks municipalities to respond to the health unit whether or not they plan to establish a bylaw banning smoking bylaws in all enclosed public places.
“We have the power, as a municipality, to do something about it. We know it’s an issue, and we’ll deal with it in our own way and on our own timeline,” the mayor added.
“We don’t have our heads buried in the sand. And [health unit CEO Dr. Pete Sarsfield] doesn’t have to treat us like kindergarten children,” he stressed.
On the other hand, Mayor Dennis Brown of Atikokan said his town likely will comply with the notice.
“We’ve been talking about a bylaw for some time now. Some councillors are for it, some against it,” he noted.
“My hope is we’ll be getting together a bylaw by May 31 in response to the notice.
“It’s great Dr. Sarsfield has taken the initiative to protect the health of the residents of the Rainy River and Kenora districts,” added Mayor Brown.
“We haven’t taken a stance yet,” said Kenora Mayor Dave Canfield. “I think council generally doesn’t have any strong feelings about this. Most of us don’t smoke, and we don’t disagree with it.
“But it’s a tough debate. Do you make every building go smoke-free, or do you let the businesses decide for themselves, as many have done here recently.
“Where do you draw the line? I know I don’t want to be overgoverned,” he added. “And the education the health unit’s been doing is working well—maybe that’s where we should leave it.”
“I was hopeful we would never have to come to passing a bylaw. The education is working,” said Mayor Sidney Wintle of Dryden, citing three restaurants there that have gone smoke-free since January.
“But I think the majority of councillors are in favour of passing some sort of bylaw. We talked about having something in place by May or June,” he added, noting administration has been ordered to gather sample bylaw policies from other municipalities to choose one suitable to implement.
Dr. Sarsfield admitted the notice is the next step in the health unit’s push to ban smoking in all enclosed public places.
“Our campaign is split up into two parts—the public communication side, which we’ve been doing for some time, and the regulatory side. This is the latter,” he said.
“Once we’ve decided something’s a health hazard, we have to proceed with it, whether it’s popular or not,” he explained. “This notice says to the municipalities, ‘You have a health hazard on your hands. You have to do something about it.’
“It also says, ‘Please let me know what you’re going to do about it by May 31. If you don’t let me know, then we’ll have to take the next steps,” Dr. Sarsfield warned.
But he remained vague as to exactly what these “next steps” would be.
“I’m reluctant to get into this. It’s like asking a police office where the speed trap is going to be,” Dr. Sarsfield remarked.
“They extend from the firm, like legal action, to the persuasive, to the status quo,” he noted. “[But] it’s going to be a surprise to me if things stay as they are—not with the scientific evidence we have in 2002.”
Dr. Sarsfield also said he’s been inspired by similar anti-smoking campaigns elsewhere in North America.
“I was at the 16th-annual Centres for Disease Control conference on chronic disease prevention in Atlanta last week,” he noted. “And one of the things that is a big concern in America is tobacco as an environmental health hazard.
“They’re really gearing up to take it on in Georgia, and some states, like California, are going crazy over it,” he added. “The message seems to be, ‘Things can’t stay as they are.’
“And North America is really at the forefront of this movement.”