Sarsfield eyeing legal action to ban smoking

“We can do this nice, or nasty.”
These were some of the first words Dr. Pete Sarsfield, CEO and medical officer of health of the Northwestern Health Unit, said Saturday as he encouraged delegates at the Rainy River District Municipal Association’s annual meeting to establish anti-smoking bylaws in their communities.
While the health unit has launched a postcard campaign to gauge public support for no smoking in all enclosed public places, a survey that has seen between 5,000-6,000 responses to date, Dr. Sarsfield made it clear he’s willing to do whatever it takes to see smoking banned—even legal action.
“The reality facing you and me is, under the Health Promotion and Protection Act, it’s vague as to what a health hazard is. It’s up to the medical officer of health.
“In the two districts [Rainy River and Kenora], I’m the only one who can say this a health hazard,” said Dr. Sarsfield.
“I’m officially declaring exposure to second-hand smoke in an enclosed public place is health hazard. If we don’t take action, we’re not only morally responsible, we’re legally responsible,” he stressed.
By declaring “second-hand smoke” a health hazard, Dr. Sarsfield effectively makes municipalities liable for not establishing bylaws against it.
“I’m hoping it won’t be necessary but the probability is that we’re going to end up in court over this. And after talking with those Toronto lawyers, I think we could win,” he noted Tuesday in an interview with the Times.
Fort Frances CAO Bill Naturkach questioned Dr. Sarsfield as to just how much money the health unit could afford to spend if litigation is necessary.
While Dr. Sarsfield bristled at the question, he later said that the health unit in fact has $50,000 set aside for legal services, and administration can always add more from other lines.
“We have flexibility. And we have the Ontario Tobacco Network behind us,” he said, adding that group paid for about two-thirds of the $25,000 postcard campaign.
Dr. Sarsfield was accompanied by health promoter Jennifer McKibbon of the health unit’s office in Dryden and a former Red Lake councillor for 12 years—a combination he referred to Saturday as the “one-two punch.”
“You can insist it’s the responsibility of the provincial government. But this is important to your communities, it’s the right thing to do, and it won’t affect businesses or your political standing,” McKibbon said.
“You’re empowered to do something under Section 213 of the Municipal Act.”
“But it’s very difficult to pass a bylaw without some teeth in it,” argued Fort Frances Mayor Glenn Witherspoon. “I think the only way we would consider this ban is if the health unit came out and said that anyone under 19 caught smoking will be charged.
“If we stop a whole decade of smokers, then there wouldn’t be a problem,” he added.
“If you guys could pass a bylaw, I could show you whole bunch of programs we could implement in high schools to prevent smoking,” countered McKibbon.
To further encourage municipalities to establish non-smoking bylaws, McKibbon passed around a “gold standard” sample bylaw proposal to all municipal councils on hand.
Dr. Sarsfield said the postcard campaign, which has seen almost a 20 percent return rate (five percent higher than the average 15 percent similar campaigns usually yield), is “heartening,” but unfortunately, in direct contrast to much of what municipal delegates had to say at Saturday’s meeting.
“The public support is there. And two or three municipal representatives came up to me after the meeting and [said] they were in support of a bylaw,” he noted.
“But then they said, rather bluntly, such a bylaw would never make it past the councils without a political push from the federal or provincial governments.
“Sometimes I think these politicians are worried about their political career more than the public’s health,” Dr. Sarsfield charged.