Times Colonist

Tobacco law a pain in the butt for smokers, businesses

- JACK KNOX

The good thing about having to cover up the windows of his cigar shop? Not being able to see the guy perched outside on the sill, smoking a joint.

Other than that, Luigi Siletta can’t find much good to say about the law that took effect March 31, the one that says tobacco products can’t be seen from the street. It’s been a pane in the glass.

Siletta owns Goodfellas Cigar Shop at Store and Pandora, a shop now papered over with red diagonal-slashthrou­gh-a-circle symbols and signs reading “Censored,” “Restricted” and “There is actually a store behind our Tobacco Control Act-compliant windows.” The messages are his way of obeying/protesting a regulation that he says doesn’t make sense.

The new law bars the advertisin­g or public display of tobacco products in places where people under age 19 can see them. The issue hit the news last week when another Victoria smoke shop, Old Morris Tobacconis­t on Government Street, got caught in a bureaucrat­ic crossfire.

Old Morris, which dates back to 1892, removed the smokes from outside view this spring, but was left with window signs advertisin­g such things as “Havana Cigars” and “House Blend Tobaccos.” Under the province’s new law, those signs were suddenly illegal. But removing them would break a city bylaw that says you can’t alter the look of heritage buildings. Eventually, a compromise was reached, one that covers up some signage but allows the Tobacconis­t sign to remain. If all that sounds logical to you, then perhaps you should have caught Kaleidosco­pe Theatre’s production of Animal Farm on the weekend.

The question is: At what point do legitimate antitobacc­o measures cross the line, becoming less about protecting non-smokers than about infringing on the freedom of those who choose to indulge? “I’m selling a legal product in this country,” Siletta says. “I should be allowed to do business.”

He agrees with keeping tobacco away from kids, but says the latest law goes beyond that, has entered the realm of hounding. “It is discrimina­tion, is what it is. It’s the majority discrimina­ting against the minority.”

I don’t smoke, don’t like smoking, will bleat in sanctimoni­ous outrage and throw a full-scale hissy fit if you light up within wafting range of my presence. Since four out of five of us don’t smoke, odds are you feel the same way. Does that give us the right to tell others what to do?

Perhaps it does, if you buy the argument that we all pay the health-care costs of smokers. But then you could extend that to drinkers, couch potatoes, hang-gliders, diners who ladle gravy on their french fries, people who sleep with other people’s spouses, and anyone else who engages in risky behaviour likely to land them in hospital. And surely, if the contents of smoke shops are deemed too much for tender eyes, we should no longer be allowed to press our noses against the windows of government liquor stores, salivating at the wonders within.

So, what effect has papering over the windows had on the Goodfellas Cigar business? “None, really,” says Siletta. If anything, there’s more traffic, non-smokers poking their noses into the store out of curiosity. “They’re making it the forbidden fruit.” But the staff feel like they’re working in a submarine. “I don’t like it because I can’t see outside.” It becomes a safety issue.

He’s swimming against the tide, though. On Saturday, the World Health Organizati­on called for government­s to ban tobacco advertisin­g. Noting that most smokers begin puffing before age 18, WHO argued that ad bans work: BBC News reported that while the last decade has seen the number of young and female smokers triple in Russia, which has few antismokin­g laws, Canadian smoking rates are at a 40-year low, thanks to unrelentin­g regulation.

Call it incrementa­l illegaliza­tion, smoking gradually banned, step by step. Perhaps government­s will one day gather the political guts to outlaw it altogether: Hand out permits to anyone who smokes today, allow those people to keep buying cigarettes, and just say no to everyone else. Eventually there will be no more smokers.

Either that, or they’ll be elbowing for space on Crack Corner, stealing your bicycle and trading it for a butt.

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