North Sydney local Council has voted unanimously to ban smoking in all public areas under Council control. These include parks, streets and plazas and outdoor footpath dining areas of cafes. The move follows similar bans in other local government areas and the receipt of over 600 submissions from local residents and workers, the overwhelming majority of which (80%) urged the Council to adopt the policy.
The Council has no plans to fine smokers, and it is not clear if the policy will also apply to vaping. It believes that community education and signage will be enough to ensure the policy succeeds. Good luck with that. Fines have been necessary to support every other restriction on smoking.
Throughout my 40 years in tobacco control, I’ve advocated with many others for polices and campaigns designed to reduce the uptake of smoking, to encourage quitting and to protect people from the known risks of exposure to secondhand smoke. The triple, inviolate bedrocks of all these policies and campaigns were that there needed to be evidence that each policy would likely achieve its goals, that the measures posed were proportionate to the problem being addressed and that they were ethically justifiable.
Perhaps the most protracted struggle in all of tobacco control was efforts to reduce exposure to other people’s tobacco smoke. In NSW, these started in 1976 with the ban on smoking on government buses and trains was introduced by transport minister Peter Cox. In the longest ever saga of half-pregnant policy, it took a full 34 years until the Northern Territory, the last bastion of smoking inside pubs, finally joined every other state and territory in introducing that policy.
Pubs were the last setting to go, while they rationally should have been the first if intensity of exposure was the key criterion. Bar staff’s occupational health was relegated to a secondary consideration in industry campaigns promoting the freedom of smokers to ignore these workers’ health because it was argued it was the birthright of any Aussie to have a smoke, a beer, a meat pie and a bet in a pub and bar staff should just have to suck it up.
Today, it is only high roller rooms in some casinos which still allow smoking. This is because of the little appreciated fact that tobacco smoke from wealthy gamblers’ cigarettes is apparently, unlike that from everyone else’s, not toxic to other people.
While the evidence for the harms of exposure to other people’s smoke has long been voluminous and overwhelming when pooled in reviews, that evidence has been almost totally based on chronic exposures occurring over many years in homes with smokers and to a lesser extent, in smoky workplaces.
This brings us to outdoor smoking and policies like that just adopted by North Sydney Council.
Here, there are some important differentiations to make. Outdoor settings can include the sardine-can like proximities to others we often experience in sporting or concert stadia, where in the past, if you had the misfortune to be sitting or standing next to smokers for many hours across a day’s play in the cricket or at a music festival, you copped a lot of their smoke point-blank.
Similarly, when smoking was banned inside cafes and restaurants in NSW in 2000 (thank you then Premier Bob Carr and health minister Craig Knowles), many smokers simply moved to the outdoor, al fresco tables. There you could find yourself in their haze across an entire meal. It was manifestly unreasonable that smokers should be rewarded with access to prized seats in the outdoor sun, so arguments for amenity carried the day on smokefree outdoor eating and drinking in many jurisdictions.
There was some evidence that acute (ie short term cigarette smoke exposure) can be detrimental to people, especially those with respiratory problems (and there are many such people in any community). For example, acute exposure to ambient smoke in healthy young adults has been shown to be associated with dose related impairment of endothelium dependent dilation, suggesting early arterial damage. However, the transitory and fleeting exposure to others’ smoking in open outdoor settings is not remotely comparable to that experienced in confined indoor settings such as were involved in the study I just cited.
When we reviewed the research literature in 2012 about studies assessing particle concentrations in outdoor smoking settings, there were very few available. And predictably, these mostly showed that the concentrations even in close proximity to the smokers were negligible.
This was always going to be obvious. Smoke particle concentrations in enclosed spaces, often with lots of people smoking, are clearly going to be far higher than in any outdoor setting where the smoke is diluted by the boundless surrounding air and dissipates rapidly in the slightest breeze.
In some Japanese cities, smoking is banned on streets except for designated smoking hubs which can get very crowded. The reason for these street bans is that the density of pedestrians can be so great that burns quite often occur to clothing and flesh from carried lit cigarettes. Yet, bizarrely, Japan still allows smoking inside restaurants. Smoking bans in very crowded outdoor shopping precincts like Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall can be justified on similar concerns.
So the key evidence needed to underscore any policy seeking to reduce significant risk to the public in wide open spaces simply does not exist. Yet this week I have heard North Sydney Council spokespeople saying that passive smoking is harmful to others. Yes it is: but in indoor settings, particularly with long term exposure, not in wide-open spaces like parks, car parks, typical streets and on beaches. Conflating the evidence on passive smoking hazards between indoor and outdoor locations is simply ignorant. All occupational air quality standards for any potentially noxious agent differentiate between indoor and outdoor settings set different standards for both.
The ethical justification for restricting where smoking can occur derives entirely from the Millean principle of preventing harm to others. There are also important collateral benefits of banning smoking in workplaces: smokers reduce their daily consumption by about 21% when they cannot smoke at work and more importantly many quit, welcoming the bans as a form of imposed self-discipline on a behaviour that 90% of smokers regret ever starting. Smoking bans fomented a rapid denormalisation of smoking: venues associated with relaxation, pleasure and conviviality like restaurants, bars, cinemas have no smoking, while smokers excuse themselves to go outside to footpaths in any weather or sit morosely in the fug of smoke in those desperate airport smoking rooms, wondering about how much they really enjoy smoking.
An enticing smokers’ lounge at an airport
The proliferation of smoke free areas certainly contributed to reducing both the frequency of smoking and the proportion of people who smoke. But so would forced incarceration, forfeiting smokers’ rights to health care or other draconian strategies too tame for the Ottoman Sultan Murad IV who had smokers executed in the sixteenth century. Very obviously, the ethical test of any policy is not only its efficiency in achieving outcomes. We don’t try to reduce smoking by any means possible. We interrogate a policy for its ethical considerations and reject those where the breaches are unjustifiable.
Because outdoor smoking ban proponents cannot point to any robust evidence to support claims that the fleeting exposures we might occasionally get from a passing smoker in a park or street are meaningfully harmful, they often reach beyond that evidence. The momentum to outdoor bans has incorporated three arguments that go well beyond evidence of direct health effects. First, large majorities of the population do not like being exposed to any tobacco smoke. Outdoor bans premised on communities’ amenity preferences are not about public health but akin to ordinances about playing music in parks, bans on public nudity and littering. Outdoor smoking bans based on amenity should not be dressed up in the language of public health.
Second, cigarette butts and packaging constitute a significant proportion of litter. North Sydney has named litter reduction as a justification for its policy, but it has not banned single use plastics for example, so its selective concern for one litter source might be questioned. Local governments wanting to abate this relentless litter source should not appropriate public health arguments in justifying their decisions but be upfront about the litter problem and ideally consistent in their concerns across all litter.
Third, some have invoked the virtues of shielding children from the sight of smoking as worthy evidence in this debate. They may concede that smoking in wide open spaces like parks and beaches poses near homeopathic levels of risk to others, but point to indirect negative impact from the mere sight of smoking. Kids see smoking and this can sometimes make it look intriguing and attractive. This line of reasoning is pernicious and redolent of the worst excesses of totalitarian regimes’ penchants for repressing various liberties, communication and cultural expression not sanctioned by the state. North Koreans are routinely subjected to such fiats, but many would recoil at the advance of such reasoning elsewhere. If it is fine to tell smokers that they cannot smoke anywhere in public view, why not extend the same reasoning to people wolfing supersized orders in family fast food outlets, to name just one example?
Coercing smokers to stop smoking in settings where their smoking poses negligible risk to others is openly paternalistic. Well-intentioned advocates for such policies argue, as paternalists always do, that such actions are for smokers’ own good, that many will be sooner or later grateful (which is often true). Paternalistic for-you-own-good laws about seats belts and motorcycle helmets involve trivial restrictions on liberty. Telling smokers they cannot smoke in public sight is a restriction of a different, worrying magnitude.
Finally, of all the factors which have been identified in risk perception research as tending to increase public outrage, risks which are imposed rather than voluntary explain much of the variance in public perceptions. Passive smoking represents a quintessential imposed risk and, together with the possibility of dreaded outcomes (like lung cancer), often incites public demand for zero exposure. This explains why many will get incensed about exposure to a mere whiff of tobacco smoke in a park, but will not hesitate to sit around a romantic smoky campfire where they will, by choice, be exposed to a large range and volume of carcinogenic particulates and gases for sometimes hours on end.
My university, the University of Sydney, has long banned smoking in all indoor areas, and more recently in outdoor areas like those in front of coffee shops and the iconic front lawn. But it provides small designated outdoor smoking areas, well away from buildings and heavy pedestrian areas. North Sydney council would do well to follow suit.