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Tuesday, 12 November 2013 15:33

Alberta unveils sweeping new tobacco restrictions

by Keith Gerein, November 7, 2013

Albertans could soon be banned from smoking in cars carrying children, stopped from using water pipes in public, and will lose access to flavoured tobacco products under new restrictions proposed Monday by the provincial government.

The rules are largely designed to keep tobacco and its harmful effects away from minors, Health Minister Fred Horne said.

“We have to take a stand on things that are root cause contributors to chronic disease in our society, many of which can be attributed to smoking,” Horne told a news conference at Harry Ainlay High School.

He said Albertan smokers typically start around age 14, and end up costing the province an estimated $1.8 billion a year in health expenses.

Enforcement of the ban on smoking in vehicles when children are present will be complaint-based, and would usually result in a ticket of $250 — though the province will have the power to levy fines of up to $5,000 for multiple violations. Legislation containing a similar ban was passed, but never proclaimed, more than a year ago.

Les Hagen, director of the anti-tobacco advocacy group Action on Smoking and Health, praised the long-awaited package of new restrictions, which he believes will make the province a leader in North America.

“This is a huge step forward for public health in Alberta and will prevent thousands of young Albertans from taking up tobacco use,” Hagen said.

The changes will be accomplished in two bills.

Bill 206, a private member’s bill supported by Calgary MLA Christine Cusanelli, has already been under debate in the legislature. Horne said Thursday the government has decided to back the bill, which includes provisions for banning the sale of tobacco with a “characterizing flavour,” such as candy-scented cigars and cigarillos and fruity spit tobacco.

However, the government has not yet committed to banning menthol cigarettes — an issue that Hagen believes has been the centrepiece of tobacco industry lobbying of MLAs.

“Menthol has to be part of a flavoured tobacco ban,” he said. “It’s the worst flavouring of all. It has a medicinal impact, soothes the throat, opens the airways, and it assists with nicotine absorption into the bloodstream.”

Cusanelli said decisions on which specific products to ban will come later.

While agreeing on the need to protect youth, Wildrose MLA Shayne Saskiw said the government is taking a heavy-handed approach. He said responsible adults should be allowed to buy what they want, rhetorically asking fellow MLAs if the province should also ban flavoured alcohol or brightly coloured firearms because they might appeal to kids.

A recent study found that close to 30,000 Alberta teens use some form of flavoured tobacco.

The second piece of legislation, Bill 33, bans the use of “tobacco-like products” such as water pipes in bars, restaurants or other public places where smoking is already prohibited.

Horne said establishments will be given 12 to 18 months to transition to the new rules.

However, Riad and Ghada Ghazal worry the new legislation will force them to close Co Co Di, their Mediterranean restaurant on Jasper Avenue and 114th Street.

Traditionally, shisha smokers have used water pipes, or hookahs, to smoke flavoured tobacco, but since tobacco smoking is banned in restaurants, Canadian proprietors instead sell a fruit-flavoured herbal mix.

“Shisha is 80 per cent, if not more, of our sales,” Ghada Ghazal said. “People come here to smoke shisha, socialize and eat.”

Riad Ghazal said smoking shisha is a tradition in Lebanon, where the couple is from.

The Ghazals are part of Safe Shisha, a group of restaurant owners who want to see the shisha industry regulated, including minimum standards for ventilation and a special licence for shisha establishments.

“I think the government took a bit of a wrong turn,” said Don Martin, a lobbyist for the group.

He estimated 70 establishments across the province will close and at least 400 unskilled jobs will be lost.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. James Talbot, said recent research has found the products in water pipes often contain cancer-causing chemicals, and may pose a threat to the health of anyone who comes into contact with the smoke.

Bill 33 will also prevent some tobacco products from being sold in small quantities or singles, which makes them more affordable for youth.

In addition, it creates a provincial ban on sales of tobacco to minors. Horne said federal law already prevents this, but “is not as enforced as rigorously as we would like.

“This kind of strengthens our ability to deal with retailers and to tailor our own enforcement mechanisms rather than rely on federal legislation.”

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