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Up in smoke

Health groups are fuming over the Liberals? decision to delay smoking legislation

With just weeks to go before the Workers? Compensation Board?s amended smoking regulations were to go into effect on Sept. 10, the Liberal government has asked the WCB to suspend implementation until they can address the concerns of restaurant and bar owners.

A committee of MLAs has been given until Oct. 31 to review the legislation, and review the following:

? The viability of moving to a performance-based regulation;

? Implementation concerns, including policies and procedures and the impact of capital costs on small businesses;

? Competing or overlapping regulations that affect implementation.

If you?re not already familiar with the history or the controversy behind the smoking ban, the Workers? Compensation Board first introduced a comprehensive set of laws and regulations in April of 1998 that banned smoking from most work places in the province. A partial exemption, or a lower standard of protection, was allowed the hospitality industry, long term care and provincial correctional facilities, until January of 2000.

The hospitality industry wasn?t included when public hearings on the smoking regulations were held, but was added after the hearings closed. A coalition of bar and restaurant owners contested the new regulations, and on March 22 last year the Supreme Court overturned the "sunset clause," effectively restoring the partial exemptions that existed prior to Jan. 1.

The WCB said it would hold the necessary open house meetings and reintroduce the legislation at the earliest opportunity. Those hearings have since taken place.

In the meantime, the hospitality industry claimed to have lost over $100 million in revenues as a result of the legislation. Joy MacPhail, the Labour Minister under the previous NDP government, felt that this claim was at least partially valid, and ordered the WCB to perform an economic impact study before they even thought of bringing the legislation back.

As a result it was a year before the WCB introduced the amendments, which allowed smoking indoors provided that it was confined to a separately ventilated room where serving staff weren?t allowed to go.

Some bars and restaurants made the necessary arrangements, shelling out for design and construction costs to get into compliance. Others, however, were unable or unwilling to perform the necessary renovation in the time given.

In the spring, the Coalition of Hospitality Organizations formally asked the newly-elected Liberal government for an extension, but were told not to get their hopes up.

On Aug. 22, Minister of Skills Development and Labour Graham Bruce finally granted their wish, writing a letter to the WCB to ask them to hold off until April 30 of next year. It is unlikely that the WCB will go ahead with the regulations without the support of the government.

"We know the health hazard that second-hand smoke represents and want all British Columbians to work in a healthy environment," Bruce said. "This two-month review will allow the committee to consult with those directly involved and come back with common-sense recommendations.

"The committee will advise how best to implement environmental tobacco smoke regulations with due regard to employee health and safety, regional concerns and installation costs. It will not be debating the pros and cons of having such regulations in the first place."

"Regional concerns" refers to the Liberals request to allow bars in the northern part of the province to be at least partially exempted from the law ? because it?s just too cold and wet to send people outside. "Installation costs" refers to another Liberal motion to allow neighbourhood, marine and hotel pubs to enclose patios as an alternative to creating a separately ventilated area inside ? provided it meets visibility standards to allow inspection from the outside by licensee staff, liquor inspectors and police. That motion will also require a change in provincial liquor regulations.

The reactions of the various health group were overwhelmingly opposed to any further delay in implementing the legislation.

"The evidence about the harm to one?s health from second-hand smoke is abundantly clear and all workers deserve the same protection from this known hazard," said Barbara Kaminsky, CEO of the Canadian Cancer Society, B.C. and Yukon Division. "In early July, another study was released, this time by Health Canada, that established the risk of lung cancer can triple because of long-term exposure to second-hand smoke, and that as smoke levels increase, so does the risk."

The B.C. Lung Association attacked the Liberal governments plans to assess economic impacts, arguing that studies have already been completed. "While some establishment owners have expressed concern about business loss, conclusions in reputable economic studies show smoking regulations do not negatively affect business in the long term," said Scott McDonald, executive director of the B.C. Lung Association.

The study he was referring to was the one the WCB put together under orders from MacPhail.

That study recognized that there would be short-term impacts to business, but in every case where smoking bans have been implemented ? including Scotland, California and Vermont ? there was no long-term loss of revenues, closures, or impacts on tourism.

While first quarter liquor sales at hotels, restaurants, cabarets and pubs were down in 2000 when compared to the same time the previous year, the report says they were still ahead of 1998 figures.

Hotel tallies were significantly down, restaurant figures were up, and pub and cabaret sales were down slightly. At the same time, overall sales of beer, wine and spirits dipped to their lowest point in over a year at the start of the ban. But by the time the ban was lifted sales were above average. The report also estimates that liquor licencees lost less than $10 million in revenues during the duration of the first ban, significantly less than the $100 million they claimed.

The Green Party also sent out a press release criticizing the Liberal decision.

"The Liberals, who talk a good line about science-based decision-making and keeping regulatory agencies free from government interference, should recognize the error that they made today and allow the WCB to proceed with implementing the smoking ban as planned," said Green Party leader Adriane Carr.

Robert Broughton, a Green Party candidate in the last election and a past president of Airspace Action on Smoking and Health (AASH), hinted that the tobacco lobby may have influenced the call for a delay.

"We know the Liberals are listening to Elia Sterling, a known tobacco-industry-funded lobbyist who argues that workplaces can be made safe with good ventilation."

On Aug. 16, AASH released a report that said second-hand smoke is the number one cause of workplace death in British Columbia. According to the report, Deadly Fumes, in the 10-year period between 1989 and 1998 "approximately 3,000 workplace deaths occurred in B.C.? almost one worker dying every day from lung cancer or heart disease," said current AASH president Heather Mackenzie.

"The number is conservative because it does not include any other causes of known or suspected second-hand smoke death, such as nasal cancer, stroke, breast cancer, cervical cancer, or asthma. After second-hand smoke, the next leading cause of death occurs in the logging industry, with 252 deaths over the same period."

Mackenize says while the workplace situation has improved since 1998, the hospitality industry ? the hardest hit employment sector according to the report ? is still vulnerable.

"Deadly Fumes underscores the need to implement the WCB ban as soon as possible," said AASH director Marc Ander. "We have discussed the numbers in this report with many other respected health agencies, including Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada. No one disputes our methodology or conclusions."

Locally, Coast Garibaldi Health has entered into the fray on the side of the WCB. "We?ve known for a long time that breathing second-hand smoke causes everything from breathing problems to chronic lung disease, lung cancer, stroke, breast cancer, heart disease, and miscarriages," says Dr. Paul Martiquet, Coast Garibaldi Health Region?s medical health officer.

He also suggested that the government was playing into the hands of big tobacco, and that any attempt to revisit the ventilation option, whereby state-of-the-art ventilation systems could take the place of separately ventilated rooms, is folly:

"To get rid of tobacco smoke you have to blow out all the smoky air straight up and suck in clean air to replace it ? like standing in a hurricane. Nobody could afford to heat that much fresh air. Except in the height of summer, you?d freeze. And the blast would blow the foam right off your beer."

The WCB is expected to respond to the Liberals? request within the week. Although the Workers? Compensation Act gives the WCB the right to set and enforce occupational health and safety standards, it?s governed by a panel of administrators that is appointed by the provincial government. Until the Liberals announced their plans to delay the implementation last week, the WCB was completely committed to their amended regulations.

How much pressure the government will put on the WCB has yet to be seen.