Starting Jan. 1, 2015, smokers will be prohibited from lighting up on playgrounds and public sports fields and surfaces as well as on bar and restaurant patios across Ontario.
The announcement came after changes were made to the Smoke Free Ontario Act in the provincial legislature earlier this month. My initial reaction was: Wow, finally. But when I started thinking about the issue from different angles, I realized that there’s more to this announcement than meets the eye.
In one of our recent issues, our columnist Rhonda Beckman touched on the shame associated with the closet smoking habit she had and hid for years before she quit for good. I’m certainly not an addictions expert, but I do know that shame—an emotion even stronger than guilt—is at the heart of many addictions.
While shame is a very intense, inward emotion, I think that the shame attached to smoking addiction certainly stems from the widespread negative view of smokers in our society these days. I’m certain that if I hit the streets and took a quick survey of peoples’ opinions on smokers, I’d be met with a lot of upturned noses and rude comments. Gone are the days when movie stars and other celebrities puffed away on fancy cigarettes in elegant holders while the world watched in awe of their glamour and grace. Nowadays, many people view smokers as dysfunctional and uneducated. We isolate smokers by sticking them into continuously shrinking corners to do their dirty deed. We marginalize smokers nearly to the point that they’re not welcome anywhere anymore.
All smokers begin their habit at different points in their lives and for different reasons, but what they all share are nicotine-generated chemical and biological changes in the brain. Nicotine is such a strong reinforcing drug that smokers crave and desire cigarettes even though they’re well aware of the damaging effects. That’s a complicated and scary position to be in and anyone who hasn’t been a smoker can’t pass judgment on or make assumptions about someone going through that.
Shaming also exacerbates addictions. A 2013 University of British Columbia study shows that even though public shaming has long been seen as a way to reduce bad behaviour, it actually increases the chances a person will continue an addiction.
But despite my empathy for people with addictions, there is still the glaringly obvious argument that neither myself nor anyone else should have to breathe in secondhand smoke while enjoying dinner or a drink on a patio or while watching a sports game.
On top of that, allowing smoking in places like playgrounds and public sports fields or bar and restaurant patios normalizes a habit that puts a $1.6 billion burden on our provincial healthcare system every year and that kills 36 people a day in Ontario. I can’t imagine how confusing it is for a child to be playing a sport with an adult—possibly a role model—smoking on the sidelines. What message does that send to the child?
If we really want people to quit smoking and prevent young people from starting in the first place—which should be the focus of every anti-smoking campaign—we need to not only educate about the dangers of smoking but also recognize that addictions are a crazy complicated and sensitive issue and that shaming people for their addictions can actually make things worse.
The changes to the Smoke Free Ontario Act and all anti-smoking campaigns should be less about smokers and more about the act of smoking itself. Smokers are not bad, their habit is.