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March 7, 2005 | by  | in Features |
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Blowing Smoke

The Act banning smoking in bars and restaurants has been in force in New Zealand for almost three months. As the wind gets chillier and bar owners get frostier, Salient Feature Writer James Robinson investigates the Government’s sales technique, and wonders whether all of this was warranted in the first place.

I am a smoker.

I was far too young when I had my first cigarette, 11, maybe 12, and a friend of mine stole them from my Mum. Even then I was aware that they were not good for you and was paranoid that one cigarette would make my teeth yellow. Still, smoking seemed cool and after dabbling on and off for a few years after that I became hooked sometime in seventh form. I come from a family of smokers so there was no great scorn on me. I knew the effects of smoking. I knew it was bad for me. But it was my decision, not the Governments.

In a liberal society the individual acts as freely from government intervention as possible. We are all educated as to the effects of smoking – you’d be hard pressed to find some smoker sitting back, inhaling on a Marlboro and arguing how fucking great their lungs were because of it. As I stumble up The Terrace on a cold morning absolutely heaving for breath, I know the consequences of my actions. I know that one day I will have to quit. I know that that day will be hard and a lot of people around me will subsequently find me a far less enjoyable person to be around.
What I’m trying to say is that I make my own decisions. I am educated, although probably considered stupid for smoking. I decide. Not you. And not the Government.

When I began considering this piece for Salient, I knew that to effectively question these laws I must consider it not as a smoker but neutrally. Non-smokers assessing the legislation, you must do the same thing.

On December 10, an amendment to the Smoke-free Environments Act came into force – an amendment that had been passed through government a year prior. It has a number of new requirements that have passed into law, the big one being that all tobacco and herbal cigarette products are now banned from all licensed premises. All workplaces are now 100 percent smokefree – putting an end to the classic Kiwi “smoko” room – and all schools and early childhood centres are now smoke free, indoors and out. Various other taxes and restrictions also went on the sale of cigarettes. Why? Well in the words of the Ministry of Health: “Second-hand smoke contains poisonous chemicals such as arsenic, hydrogen cyanide, ammonia and carbon monoxide.

Currently, around 350 New Zealanders die each year because of exposure to second-hand smoke, and many others become sick. The new requirements protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke.”

So the Government wants to protect the workers from second-hand smoke. The new amendments really only hit the hospitality industry, while all workplaces are now totally smoke free, most have already been so for years. So I had a few important questions I really felt needed proper answers. How at risk are the bar staff? What other alternatives were there for bars? Why were they neglected? What does this mean for the hospitality industry? And does Smoke Free New Zealand have a bee in their bonnet or are we all really screwed?

My quest for answers began at the office of ACT leader and pugnacious opposition MP Rodney Hide. He set me off in a direction that would come to dominate my research. “The statistics are dodgy. Half the people included in the passive smoking deaths – a statistic used to promote the ban with the public – were infants killed by passive smoke in the home. It all comes down to the fact that we have a government that is a nanny government. It likes telling people what to do through legislation. Personal freedoms and responsibilities are a wonderful thing. But where are they? They are slowly being taken away as the Government tries to police every aspect of our lives. People can choose to run a smoke free bar and should have that right. It’s a failure to appreciate people’s rights to choose. ”

What became obvious when looking at what went into the legislation was a pre-determined bent against smoking. The words ‘social engineering’ could be used, and indeed have been thrown around. Helen Clark has spearheaded the anti-smoking movement since the 1980s – we have seen the intermittent introduction of the Bill ever since. Where it was first laughed it, it is now a reality. Emotive advertisements and shocking statistics have been in our faces for years. The tax I pay on a packet of cigarette borders on 80 percent. I don’t mind being punished – it is a bad habit with inelastic demand. You can raise the prices and I’ll still fork out. But with the Smoke Free Workplaces Act the Government has gone beyond messing with the smokers, and taken to businesses as well. Leaving for me to decide, have the Government gone too far? Or is protecting bar workers from passive smoke worth the cost?

In other words… Is the juice worth the squeeze?

I had no intention of attempting to argue that passive smoking was good for you. I just wanted to know if New Zealand was being had with this anti-smoking bill, thinly veiled as a workplace protector. Rodney Hide, a non-smoker himself, has some ‘beef’ with the bill. “We are against the Bill as a party. It is up to the owner of a bar what goes on inside. No one in the ACT caucus smokes, but we see it as a violation of the important principle of choice and freedom. It really should be the owner’s choice.”

He sees alternatives to the ban. “Well, firstly you could have bars with ventilation fans to clear the air; extraction fans worked when they were cleaning out asbestos affected workplaces. Or, if you took it to the extreme, you could have bars which were smoking and bars which were not and bars which were separated. You could have diversity and choice and leave it up to the patrons.”
He points at the spate of incidents outside pubs and complaints about weekend mess outside pubs as classic examples of poorly thought through legislation having immediate consequences.

“When you go to regulate, there are unintended consequences. There are now obstructions to pedestrians and people are now more vulnerable on the street.” He makes reference to a woman in Timaru who stepped outside the bar to have a cigarette. Outside the bar she was vulnerable, and was raped and abducted. This points to a real security concern that was not taken into account when the Bill was being drafted. “What a horrible thing to happen,” says Hide. “When the Government is trying to boss people around, this kind of unintended consequence can happen.” Have concerns for second-hand smoke risen above protecting bar-goers?

And there’s more. “Well firstly,” Hide continues, “you had Smoke Free lobbying the Ministry of Health with funding allocated by the minister.” (A publicised scandal in 2003, with Smoke Free shelling out for expensive dinners to lobby the Bill – even for the Minister of Health herself, with government money.) “You have guys who have gone off to war and been shot at – who can’t have a cigarette in a pub. Despite the fact that it was the Government who got them hooked. This is at the same time as cigarette smoke is being okayed in Maraes and prisons. The logic is not sound.”

With fines falling solely on bar staff and a winter set to send paying customers outside for a puff, hospitality may be hit hard. “People will just start staying at home. The winter will be tough on bar owners. Fines fall on taxpayers’ money for enforcement, and on top of that the fines fall on owners rather than culprits. It’s just another case of persecution over and above personal responsibility.”

Someone in Mr Hide’s corner is Bar Bodega owner Fraser McInnes. “We had a free market in the hospitality trade until this happened. Now the ham fist of the State has stuck its oar in and there is bound to be some fall out.”

McInnes had recently spent 20,000 dollars on a ventilation system for the bar and is understandably angry. “The ban has had a dampening effect already- although it is hard to assess how much at this stage Not having a garden bar or balcony means that the market is now no longer a level playing field. Part of the selling point of the Bill was the ‘fact’ that many non-smokers were too uncomfortable to come out. “The winter will be the real test,” says McInnes, “the promised hoards of non-smokers have been conspicuous in their absence so far.”

He says that only a few people try and disregard the ban and the security aspect of policing the added presence of people outside the bar hasn’t been too strenuous. McInnes is severely critical of the national climate and attitude that has led to the ban being implemented. “Kiwis have a nasty trait of bellying up to whatever Mummy State wants. The majority of the policing will be done by the do-gooders to help the cause and that has shades of brown-shirtism. It’s the creeping neo-conservatism of the left and its obsession with public health above all else. In 1996 18-year-olds were allowed in and now there is a private members bill to put it [the drinking age] back up to 20. It’s just a constant bashing for the hospitality sector, especially with the ongoing compliance legislations and continues in excise. Hospitality has been sucker-punched by the State again – when they first broached the idea it was to make the bar 50/50. We resisted only to find out a few months down the track that it was going to be a hundred percent non smoking. It would have just been a bit more honest to have been given the option – no smoking areas would have been a lot fairer to all bars.”

I could see their points: Over-stated statistics manipulated public opinion to rush through a ban that in the end would mess with our hospitality industry and affect a lot of people’s businesses. But does the right of a bar owner to provide the outlet for a cigarette and beer combo outweigh the responsibility of the Government to protect the workers from nasty, nasty carcinogens? And are these carcinogens killing bar-goers and bar workers? Or just making them smell bad? (On a side note – it’s really obvious when someone has farted in a bar… Really, horribly and stinkily obvious.)

It was time to gauge the other side of the fence and see what they had to say in response. On the non-smoking side of things we have Labour MP for Rotorua Stephanie “Steve” Chadwick and Ministry of Health doctor Ashley Morris.

Steve Chadwick is a nice woman. Friendly, outgoing and packing a contagious enthusiasm for the subject it was hard to put her to the test. She knew her way around the bill, and knew how to sell the legislation. “People once came up to me and said, ‘Oh, you are the anti-smoking lady.’ Now I’ve got people coming up and saying ‘this is just fantastic. I can now go in to these places and enjoy a good night.’” Chadwick tells me that pre-December, her only real support came from the medical profession, but now even hoteliers are starting to come around. She dismisses the claim that the lobbying of the Ministry by Smoke Free with government money was inappropriate – “I know where that came from… but the lobby has gone on since the 1970’s- in public health we get lobbied by many, many public health groups on things like obesity, alcohol and smoking. That is their role- to give us information.” She didn’t get quite close enough for me to addressing the ethics of government money being used to lobby the same government on a highly contentious Bill, but I will take her word for it. Also, when I pose my concerns that Smoke Free tended towards over-dramatic advertisements in place of cold hard facts and cases, Chadwick is quick to dismiss this. “I didn’t find it at all dramatic,” she tells me.

Chadwick resents the assertion that this is a one hundred percent ban – and does not see this as an attack on smokers of anyway, just a necessary step to protect the workers. “It isn’t a one hundred percent ban at all – we’re just saying to smokers- ‘look, go outside and smoke.’ It’s a Bill that’s protecting the air. It’s called the Smoke Free Environments Bill – it’s just saying that public spaces is where the air disperses quicker. In concentrated spaces, seventy-five percent of the public [the non-smokers] deserve to breathe clean air.”

With bars now Smoke Free, many flock towards a bar with a comfortable outdoor drinking area. Consider the extreme outdoor/ indoor inbalance one finds at Indigo. Eighty percent of people are outside smoking on the balcony, with chairs, tables and heaters to make it a little bit more pleasant than perching in Cuba Street. With some bars up in attendance and some bars quite down, it seems obvious to me that the smoking ban has made the hospitality industry a little less than level. Chadwick disagrees, however: “At first we had provision for RSAs but we had publicans coming in and saying that they didn’t want to lose clients to the local RSA, so we thought that the only way to make it equitable would be to take the ban right across the board.” What of the effect on business? Any feelings on the negative effects this ban will inevitably have for many pubs? “We expected a slump in business, and we knew that one would be coming – it happened in New York when the ban [on smoking in bars and restaurants] went into place. But what we have been hearing from people is quite the opposite.”

Throughout the mooting of the legislation, a persistent argument has been that this ban left in its wake a number of viable alternatives. Extraction fans, a reliable alternative for making asbestos affected rooms safer, are the alternative commonly offered up by those seeking a middle-ground. Chadwick, however, dismisses claims to their utility. “We did look seriously at ventilation systems and we did think about making a provision in the act for them,” she says. “But when we looked at it they were nonsense, we went to ACT in Australia where they have the provision in place. People don’t turn them on, maintenance is high. They were too noisy and too expensive. Also research showed us that it would take the force of a tornado to replace the air inside a bar.”

However, a quick search on Google for Extraction fans showed every company marketing them as quiet, effective in replacing the air in rooms and very easy to maintain – although in the case of a politician versus a salesman it’s hard to choose between the two angles and my guess is the reality lay somewhere in between. They are very similar professions!

Anyway. “We looked at having rooms that were ventilated,” Chadwick continues, “but in the end we knew that this was about protecting the workers and they still had to work in there.” What would she say to a Libertarian? Why isn’t it the publican’s decision? “Because publicans would never make the decision.”

My last line of attack on her is security. Along with the rape of the Timaru woman, a lawsuit against a well-known Auckland pub has been laid by a 24-year-old who was trampled outside a bar by four men who were thrown at her while being evicted by bouncers. She suffered severe concussion and a broken leg. Does something need to be done? Is this something we really need to put up with? “I think safety is an issue,” concedes Chadwick, “but it’s also an issue with being a responsible drinker. Lone women should never really go outside alone. The pedestrians are good – they give the cities a much more visibility and it will get more and more like the cosmopolitan atmosphere you see in New York or London.”

And not for the first time in our conversation – I get the sinking feeling that my question hasn’t been quite addressed. Damn politicians…

I wanted someone from Smoke Free to talk too. Because to be honest, I’ve always hated Smoke Free. I know that if I continue to smoke it will kill me – so why do I have to be constantly reminded? I am 20, well past the ‘impress the kids behind the bikesheds’ stage. But I was persevering with extreme journalistic neutrality on this serious issue and Smoke Free still didn’t go well for me. I was told off. Told to consider the rights of non-smokers before smokers. Told to talk to the Ministry. Told they had to get their messages straight, so I should interview them. I should have written down the name of the woman I talked to. I didn’t, but boy, she was touchy.

I was greeted much more fondly by the Ministry of Health than by Smoke Free and felt better talking to Dr Ashley Bloomfield after my dressing down. Though, alas, he didn’t really have anything dramatically new to add to what Steve Chadwick had to say. Passive smoking is bad, extraction fans and separate areas just weren’t viable options in protecting workers from passive smoke, which puts non-smokers at exactly the same risks as smokers. One point of note though, one small point which seemed relevant – by his own admission you just can’t pinpoint where and when people are exposed to passive smoke. And as we’ll see in a moment, that’s a doozy.

After two interviews from either side. I had a good handle on the situation. I was chasing my tail though – with each side really persuasive in their arguments I was lost. Going over my interview tapes one by one I would get swayed by their arguments after each subsequent listen. I was beginning to feel like that guy in the Chocolate Wheaten commercial – staring at a spinning coin with the voices in my head yelling at me “THE LIBERTIES”… “HEALTH”… “THE LIBERTIES”… “NO. THE HEALTH.” I was confused and delved into my own research on the matter. Amateur research it was – I am not a government ministry, or a scientist – but research all the same. In fact, I was delving into other people’s research to try and find an answer to my ever balloning bag of questions and thoughts.

There seemed to me to be three big issues at hand here. How crooked were these Smoke Free statistics? What could be alternatives to a full ban? And how devastating is passive smoking, really?

In fact, the statistics are pretty damn cocked up, skewed and bordering on dishonest. If it was a statistics assignment and they had my seventh form teacher they would have failed. Badly failed. And then cried, but it’s Smoke Free – a rampantly Metrosexual 21st Century Beast with the mother of all home boys, the Prime Minister, on its back.

ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) says 380 and Smoke Free say 350 people die each year from exposure to second hand smoke. The Ministry of Health says 388. Each of these three figures pinpoints between half and two-thirds (in ASH’s case) of fatalities at exposure to smoke by infants in the home. Half of all second-hand smoke inhaled is estimated to be consumed by kids. So now we are down to around fifty percent of the statistics thrown in our faces when the ban was being lobbied. As I found out passive smoke is hard to pinpoint, but I’m pretty sure these kids aren’t bar hopping. That fact was thrown around a lot, but I had no idea how inflated it was from the truth and a lot of people I ran the fact by had no idea either. Lies, damned lies and statistics ha?

Now I’m going to swing the pointer the way of the Ministry of Health, whose gross misuse of statistics is astounding for people being paid by taxpayers. The figure of 388 they assessed was for the 1997 year. Ehey included all the cases of sudden Infantile Death Syndrome for that year under the assumption that the infants would still be alive if their parents hadn’t smoked. Except of the 109, only fifty-nine sets were found out to be smokers. The other fifty – they never found out if their parents smoked or not, they just threw them in for good measure. ASH, Smoke Free and the Ministry sure have something funny going on… I’m not saying any of them lied, I’m just saying they weren’t honest with the statistics.

Let’s take the three statistics and average them out at say sixty percent of the smoke consumed to kids in the home. That leaves us with 149 adult, bar-going, bar-working adults dying each year. So can we pinpoint this directly to passive smoking? If passive smoking is really like peeing in a pool then who is getting struck down? And where?

On June 23rd of last year David Simms died of cardiac arrest while being treated for lung cancer. He had had two puffs on a cigarette his whole life – and spent a lot of it working in smoky cafes, bars and work environments. A perfect case for the Government to use to market the ban. In Simms’ own words “my working environment was the smoko room.” But even his own case brings up many pressing questions. A lifetime in smoking environments left him sick. But forcing office and other workers to go outside for a cigarette has none of the economic implications of forcing a bar worker outside, surely? And isn’t this the same David Simm who had his longtime appeal for ACC compensation because of his lung cancer turned down by the same government that used him as a figurehead? Yes. ACC does not identify passive smoking as a workplace injury – odd, when the government is telling us so many people die each year as a direct result of it.

I felt like I was making some progress. I pressed on, and soon found a good study, full of science and all that majesty that might actually give this rant some weight. I found a survey taken by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (a government organisation), a recent survey that was effectively a compilation of worldwide studies on the effects of passive smoking (it’s an interesting read and can be found by searching ‘passive-smoking’ on Google. Just for anyone who thinks I may be going all ‘Ministry of Health’ on ‘ya). I’ll just pull some quotes straight from I t- it found “passive smoking for adults far more dangerous in the home”. In the section entitled “Risk of disease in workplace exposure in never-smokers”, where it compiled surveys on this very subject over 10 years, the study found the increased risk of lung disease to be four percent – a little down on our own Ministry of Health’s estimate of twenty percent. Repeated studies of people exposed to passive smoke in a bar found the link between passive smoking and serious disease in those who had never smoked to be a “positive association but not statistically significant” and that in many cases there was a ‘probably misclassification of exposure’. Hmmmm…

Over-selling… Violation of liberties… Who am I to label? A good friend of mine and anti-smoker Jonathan Allan (a frequent bouncing board for this story) said to me once that “all because the smoking ban costs someone money, that doesn’t mean that it is a bad thing if it is saving lives”. And he is right, bang on. In this whole story that is probably the least refutable idea. The thing is that the further I got in to this story, the more I realised that although passive smoking might be a health risk, it is not mowing down members of the public who go to bars and killing off hospitality workers with the voracity we are being told it is. = And if it is not, than the costs to businesses affected by a loss of patronage is an assault on civil liberties. Their right to offer a service to smoking and non-smoking customers has been affected, as have our rights as citizens by being unable to light up in a bar. Do you know that many people believe that passive smoking is worse for you than actually smoking? This, despite that the most lethal chemicals in tobacco smoke are found in passive smoke in only small fractions of the quantity that a smoker like myself inhales. We have got to a stage where cigarette education has been taken so far that everyone knows cigarettes are bad – which is good. Except it hasn’t stopped there. Emotive ads funded by our government show cigarette smoke creeping along and wiping out all they come across. It’s social engineering. People know smoking kills and still do it, but I’d put good money on it that that still pisses a few people off.

But passive smoking is not good for you. Its effect on the home is devastating – the same Australian Government survey I quoted a few paragraphs up shows the lifelong exposure to passive smoke in the home to be crippling on not just kids, but adults as well. It’s just not killing off bar-goers (the copious alcohol that’s being ripped through their livers is doing far more damage), and there are ways to protect bar staff from exposure. Bar patrons who are sick of clothes smelling of smoke should really assess the damage to their liver first – it’s a little more severe than having to wash your t-shirt in the morning. And although you may support the Bill because of the unpleasant smell – don’t you think bar owners have the right to be protected from needless interference?

So I hate this ban. I think it is unfair and over-thought. But before you decide that you hate me too, try and consider the facts beyond that you hate smoking, think it’s stupid and think those who
do it are stupid too.

So there you have it. Four and a half thousand words that fly in the face of public opinion and I look forward to seeing my name smeared across the letters pages. I hope that if this article achieves anything it is at least that some may question why this ban is in place and look at the rot of social engineering in New Zealand society. A movement is in place to put R18 restrictions on films that contain smoking. Laughed out of Parliament – but how long before it gains traction just like the smoking ban?

The smoking ban has been marketed to us as the only way, whatever the cost. Put simply it is not and people are being treated unfairly. Rights are compromised here and smoker or not, I hope you can see the injustice in that.

*******
Just to prove that I am not just a nay-sayer, here are some possible solutions that I find viable in protecting people and cutting down smoking and it’s damage:
50/50 bars. Smoking rooms. Non-smoking and smoking bars.

These really are three different ideas – easily discounted by the law-makers but ones that really should get another look in. The 50/50 idea is the dodgiest, because you can’t stop smoke from traveling and tragically axing down the innocent. A better idea is to have a separate smoking room in a bar – or, for two-storied bars, smoking floors, with different sections being helmed by non-smoking and smoking staff. It’s a somewhat informal feeling, but a lot of bar staff are smokers in the first place – but non-smoking staff can be left out of harm’s way in smoke-free areas. A smoking room in itself, which could be cleaned out only by smoking members of staff? Sounds like a plan. And what about taking it to Rodney Hide’s extreme and allowing bar owners to decide for themselves? Letting the market decide? People could work in a smoking bar. People could work in non-smoking bars. People could choose. Whatever happened to choice anyway? People do get a choice in where they work. Don’t they? (I don’t. Emily has a shotgun and a maniacal grin pointed my way as I write this.) A Sunday Star-Times survey into restaurants and bars from around the country found that while Fraser McInnes at Bodega finds that eighty percent of his clientele after work are smoking, Andrew Cameron at the White House finds that five percent of his smoke. Surely this is sound reasoning for putting choice back in the hands of the publicans.

Extraction fans.
These can replace air in a room every three minutes. Bodega has a hugely expensive extraction system, why can’t people smoke inside? Steve Chadwick maintains that it is because bar owners cannot be relied on to switch them on. But surely this is just as difficult as policing bars for errant puffers? The legislation took a year to be put in place – and this would definitely have given bars more than enough time to kit themselves out.

Legislate against smoking in the home instead.
I don’t care how much of a contradiction my advocating this is. All evidence points to how much more devastating smoking in the home is than workplace (especially bar) exposure. It is an intrusion on the home but a necessary one – and a difficult one. I am not a public servant, but how about legally requiring all landlords to stop smoking inside the house? Fine. Evict. This would cut out a far larger proportion of damaging passive smoking exposure.

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About the Author ()

James Robinson is a university dropout turned journalist who likes to pretend he has an honours degree. Turn ons include soup, scarfs, a hot bath and some FM-smooth Kenny G-esque instrumental jazz. Turn offs include student politicians, the homeless, and people who pronounce it supposebly.

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