Halifax · Justice · Politics · Poverty

All Smokers (and By-Laws) Are Not Created (and Enforced) Equally

It is nice to see some of the status quo behind the plight of smokers.  It’s a hard thing to sell these days… cause really, who cares about the rights of a smoker?  On its face, it seems like an absurd thing to advocate for.  How can one be pro-smoking these days?  I don’t view this as a pro-smoking issue though.  This is an issue of regulation.

Since joining the chorus of opposition to the Smoking Ban (and cannabis regulation) and talking to smokers about it in private and public, I am hearing a lot of deep emotional anger around it.  Kind of like what I felt last Saturday morning when I took a deep dive into the media around it.  People are joking with me that they are concerned they will get violent if they are confronted by a person trying to enforce the by-law for smoking on the sidewalk.  They are feeling deeply attacked.

These substances are legal, and after October, will *all* be available on the free market making government tax dollars that will balance budgets (or contribute to surpluses).  In the case of pot smokers, who have been fighting this long fight for legalisation for decades now, it feels like a smack in the face because it is looking like there is going to be more public scrutiny and systemic interactions than there ever was when it was a criminal activity.

All people are asking for is consultation on how the municipal government regulates their legal activities.  Well at least, that is (generally) what *I* am asking for.  More specifically, it is asking HRM City Council not to bureaucratically ban substances that have been determined legal by the Canadian Government, and to punitively deal with the already marginalised populations which are, statistically speaking, the most likely to use them.  There are other ways to regulate smoking without imposing a blanket ban, and through consultation we can figure it out together. 

So if you aren’t a smoker, why should you care when a legislative decision is made that is statistically likely to only impact the so-called “undesirables” of a community – the ones who cause a “nuisance”, who need financial assistance to just get basic life necessities to keep them physically healthy, and assistance from substances to keep them mentally healthy (be it prescribed or not)?  I don’t think this is a very difficult question to answer, but I have personal experiences with being an “undesirable” person to varying degrees.

A lot of the people I hang around with are smokers.  If they don’t smoke cigarettes, they smoke weed.  If they don’t smoke, they vape.  Some smoke cigars on special occasions, some only smoke when they drink.  Some used to, some still do.  I am guessing that is true outside of my subjective point of view, and if health statistics were to measure smoking from a lifetime point of view, there would be very few Nova Scotians who have never smoked anything in their lives.  I obviously can’t separate my bias out from this question, but I can supply statistical and anecdotal evidence to support my people.  That is my gift and my skill.

For years social activists have been told that they need to provide the systems with evidence to back up the claims they see on a day to day basis of their lives.  And for years social activists have been getting better at both producing that evidence, and analysing the government-provided evidence held with StatsCan, CIHI, SSHRC and various other knowledge agencies.  So it is kind of infuriating when such evidence is over-ridden by an elected official’s “feelings” and beliefs.  It happens all the time.

In the case of the Smoking Ban I can kind of understand.  Because some of the evidence I have brought forward to my councillor makes an income-based argument, and that is competing with evidence from the Health sector which, as confidently, states: smoking is bad.  How can I argue with that evidence?  Well I can’t, because I accept all of it, in addition to the evidence I have.  The Social Indicators of Health framework tells me I have to consider all the inputs of health before I can decide how to deal with health outcomes.  Income is one of the social indicators of health, and something very relevant to community smoking outcomes, my councillor can’t argue with that.  The “regular smoker” demographic profile has less income variance as smoking abatement measures have been taken and appear to be working in the areas of prevention and cessation for middle and upper income earners. 

This by-law has been created to deal with smokers with the assumption being that all smokers are created equal, which is likely why my councillor made the statement “No one is going to be out ticketing the homeless for smoking” to me on Twitter this past week.

So now my focus has now switched to statistical evidence that links poverty and law enforcement.  Unfortunately, I don’t have access to local data on by-law enforcement.  But if I did, I would do an income related analysis using address as a disparity variable.  I would assume that somewhere there is an excel sheet which includes the address of the person issued a ticket for infraction.  I have seen and worked with Summary Offence Tickets and the data attached to it and I have done a similar analysis with it.  Homeless people who are issued such tickets are coded as “no fixed address” or with the address of a the shelter they are staying at.

I have also done a lot of data analysis on information supplied by the homeless population for the last 10 years in this city.  I’ve also worked with folks marginalised from HRM because of their income, skin colour, age, gender and sexuality, culture, neurological differences, and neighbourhood they come from in a variety of ways. Overall, the system is not designed, nor applied equally to them because when you live outside the status quo, you buck up against the system a lot more frequently, your life is placed under scrutiny by the public, and you have a lot more interactions with the police and law enforcement.  Your inability to conform to the norm becomes a problem, and the system has to pay for it somehow.  Our system is punitive, and the cycle continues.  I work in this field because I want to get off the hamster-wheel that is the social reproduction of poverty and crime.

It seems that the debate between my councillor and I rests with a disagreement over enforcement – him believing that the amended Nuisance By-law will not be enforced punitively and will be similar to enforcement of By-Law S-200 Respecting Smoking in Public Places; and me, having seen data to indicate otherwise on the first point, and unable to form an opinion on the second part because I have never seen enforcement data on that by-law.  In fact, I have never actually seen that by-law which apparently has an unknown “status”.  And further down the rabbit hole I fall…

My councillor is willing to consider data collected on the nuisance by-law after it is amended to include smoking, but apparently isn’t willing to consider the data that already exists on it.  He keeps referring to Smoke Free Places, but that is not the by-law that is being amended, the nuisance by-law is. 

All of these things are big problems to me.  Not only because a community’s health is often reflected in the health of its most vulnerable, but also because I want to know the person making decisions that are supposed to represent me in halls of power, are based on the best evidence available and with a solid understanding of their impacts.

Compassion is one thing.  Good decision-making is another.   And representation in democratic systems is everything.