Sarsfield telling businesses to butt out

Given many municipalities’ refusal so far to come up with bylaws banning smoking in enclosed public places, the CEO and medical officer of health of the Northwestern Health Unit will be sending orders to regional restaurants and bars next month to eliminate second-hand cigarette smoke from their premises.
“June 3 is the day we’ll start working on this. But we realize it’s going to be weeks or even months before we can get all the notices out,” Dr. Pete Sarsfield said Monday.
“There’s thousands of businesses involved here,” he noted.
Dr. Sarsfield noted businesses that already have no-smoking policies in place should notify the health unit, while those that don’t should consider the impending notice an official warning to eliminate smoke for the sake of employees’ health—or else.
“We’ll then give them time to comply. We’re currently receiving legal advice as to what’s reasonable,” he said.
“I think it should be maybe a month. If this was about a physical change to a business, we’d allot more time. But it’s really about posting a ruling and then enforcing it. It’s that easy,” Dr. Sarsfield added.
He noted the onus will be on the owner of the business and not the customer if someone lights up, and that the ban won’t be difficult to enforce.
“If we receive complaints from employees or find evidence the business hasn’t complied during an inspection, which we are by law allowed to do, we issue a fine,” said Dr. Sarsfield.
Fines could be up to $2,500.
“If the fines aren’t paid, and the order isn’t complied with, we then contact the police. The business could be shut down,” he warned.
Dr. Sarsfield said the health unit is entitled to enforce this policy under the Health Protection and Promotion Act, although such action under this act has yet to be challenged in court.
While he expects legal conflicts are in the cards as business owners, Chambers of Commerce, or possibly even municipalities appeal charges, the health unit will end up with the winning hand.
“I’m hoping we’ll have a final ruling on this by the end of the calendar year,” Dr. Sarsfield remarked.
He said the Ministry of Health currently is reviewing “the applicability of a health hazard when it comes to second-hand smoke,” but added he has since given up lobbying the provincial government and is taking matters into his own hands.
Dr. Sarsfield issued an official notice in late February that second-hand smoke was a health hazard, stipulating that municipalities served by the Northwestern Health Unit must respond to him by May 31 with their intentions as to what they will do about the hazard (i.e., establish bylaws banning smoking in enclosed public places).
But so far, only Ear Falls has indicated it will comply and try to establish a bylaw.
Meanwhile, several local business people and officials disagree with Dr. Sarsfield’s approach.
“Clearly, Dr. Sarsfield cares deeply about this issue. But I think he’s making some very bad decisions,” said Tannis Drysdale, president of the Northwestern Ontario Associated Chambers of Commerce.
“What he’s doing is so far-fetched from the reality I understand–if it wasn’t with taxpayers’ money, it would be funny,” she added.
Drysdale applauded the information campaign the health unit has been promoting, in particular that of Jennifer McKibbon, who has been visiting with district municipalities since the new year, and has encouraged some businesses to adopt smoke-free policies.
“But for every step forward the Canadian Cancer Society and the health unit information campaign takes, Dr. Sarsfield’s cowboy antics are taking them three steps back,” she remarked, adding if he’s successful with this newest approach, where will he go next?
“I totally agree with the concept of going smoke-free. But I think that people should be able to make that choice themselves,” said Ted DeBenetti, chair of the local Business Improvement Area.
“[Dr. Sarsfield] said, ‘If I start worrying about someone’s business falling off by 10 or 20 percent, I won’t be able to do my job.’ But 10-20 percent—that’s everybody’s bottom line,” he stressed.
DeBenetti noted if Dr. Sarsfield would just be patient with businesses, he ultimately would get what he wants.
“Smoking is going out of style. That trend is starting already,” he said, pointing to such local businesses as Pizza Hut, Robin’s Donuts, and now A&W, which recently decided to ban smoking.
“We live in a free country. We’re intelligent people and we see the light,” added DeBenetti. “I just don’t think the health unit should push it down people’s throats.”
Roberta Oliver, president of the Fort Frances Chamber of Commerce, agreed Dr. Sarsfield is “rushing things.”
“There’s a lot of businesses that have gone smoke-free or are considering to do so right now,” she noted. “The town said they would do something, too, but they would take their time.
“Sarsfield is jumping the gun a bit. And I also think he’s doing this as a way to threaten businesses.”
“I have a concern about the policing of it—I don’t think it can be done,” said Fort Frances Mayor Glenn Witherspoon.
“Also, we’ve all talked about the hazards of second-hand smoke, and we know it’s bad. But to alter smoking policies in the entertainment and restaurant sectors, you just can’t have a guillotine approach,” he added.