12 January 2009

Smoking law gets teeth

So you think the law’s hard on smokers? Soon even tougher legislation will make lighting up in public a lot trickier.


Remember smoking on the plane? In movie theatres? To paraphrase the Virginia Slims tag line of the 1970s: We’ve come a long way, baby.

And we’re about to go even further. South Africa’s current legislation, the Tobacco Products Control Amendment Act (1999), which moved smokers into seclusion (or semi-seclusion) in restaurants and offices, will get new teeth when the stricter Tobacco Products Control Amendment Bill is passed in two to three months’ time.

Dr Yussuf Saloojee, Executive Director of the National Council Against Smoking (NCAS), draws out the most important implications of the new Bill for us:

Why we need a stricter Tobacco Act
Dr Saloojee explains that the current Act is fine in principle, but in practical terms it hasn’t been effective because smokers and owners of public venues simply aren’t adhering to it.

“The worst offenders have been members of the restaurant and hospitality industries,” says Saloojee.

The basic conditions of the law will stay the same: in all public venues, and on public transport, no more than 25% of the space can be designated a smoking area. That area needs to be physically isolated from the rest of the interior i.e. it needs to be enclosed and the smoky air vented to the exterior of the building.

But the law will be amended to extend certain restrictions on smoking in public, to afford children greater protection, and to punish transgressors more severely.

Hefty fines
The Bill stipulates much heftier fines, which the NCAS believes will serve as a far more effective deterrent to potential law-breakers.

A smoker lighting up in a non-smoking zone will be fined up to R500. The maximum fine for owners of public venues who don’t follow the letter of the law – and that includes posting clear signs indicating smoking areas – goes up from the paltry R200 it is at present, to R50 000. Employers who flout the law can be fined R100 000.

No smoking at entrances
“We got frequent complaints about smokers congregating around entrances to buildings, so non-smokers would have to pass through a cloud of smoke, says Saloojee.

“When the new law takes effect, smokers will have to stand away from an entrance; exactly how far hasn’t been stipulated – the Health Department needs to put some thought into this.

“There should probably be different distances for different buildings – something like 5-10m for big buildings and a couple of metres for smaller buildings. In California, for example, you need to be 6m from the entrance to a public building; in Australia you have to be 10m away before you light up.”

Freshening up the outdoors
We can also expect increased restrictions on smoking in outdoor public places like sports stadiums and railway platforms.

“Again, the exact parameters of this aren’t yet definite,” says Saloojee.

“The need for this amendment arose out of frequent complaints about non-smokers being affected by smoking out-of-doors. Mainly, the complaints related to restaurants where the exterior seating is often given over to smokers: non-smokers say they can’t enjoy sitting outside; they either have to sit indoors or endure the smoke.”

More protection for kids’ lungs
Under-eighteens will no longer be allowed into designated smoking areas. “We’ve had reports of women breastfeeding in smoking areas,” says Saloojee.

The concern with kids’ exposure to environmental tobacco smoke extends to childcare facilities. “Smoking will be banned completely in homes which run crèches or other childcare programmes; it won’t just be a case of not smoking in the room where the kids are. You find that people forget and take the cigarette into the room. Also, smoke drifts,” says Saloojee.

These may seem like excessive measures, until one considers the mounting evidence on the dangers of passive smoking. To look at just one suite of studies: even where people take care to smoke outside a residence, with doors and windows closed, children were still found to have been exposed to nicotine.

The right to breathe smoke-free air
Health inspectors will monitor compliance with the Tobacco Act, but, says Saloojee, “You’re unlikely to see policemen enforcing these laws. For the most part, it’s ordinary citizens who are increasingly instrumental in getting others to follow the regulations.

“These laws empower people, and let them feel they have the right to clean air. Now, non-smokers are bolder about demanding this right, and many smokers are respectful of this and don’t need to be ordered not to smoke in public places.

“The social environment has changed. The interactions between smokers and non-smokers don’t have to be confrontational, and having the law spelled out helps with this. This is why we’re so adamant about having non-smoking signs up.”

A global trend
South Africa’s crackdown on smoking follows a global movement towards cleaner air. On Tuesday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) called for all countries to go 100% smoke-free – meaning a total ban on smoking indoors at workplaces and public venues. WHO director-general Dr Margaret Chan was quoted as saying: "The evidence is clear. There is no safe level of exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke."

Saloojee is pleased with the gains South Africa has made in anti-smoking legislation, but nonetheless feels that we’re lagging behind internationally. He points out that New Zealand, Uruguay, Bermuda, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, as well as certain US states and large parts of Canada, are already smoke-free, with others - like England on 1 July this year – soon to follow.

“I was in Ireland recently, about which there was concern because of the strong smoking-and-drinking pub culture, and I was impressed to see how well smokers have adapted to the new ban,” says Saloojee. “They have their drink in the pub and then go out to smoke.”

Do stricter laws help smokers quit?
“There’s clear evidence from California (now smoke-free), for example, that smoking bans force smokers to cut down. They don’t have the trigger of other people lighting up around them as much, they don’t have as many opportunities to smoke,” says Saloojee.

“Among smokers who kick the habit, 4-6% say they gave up because of anti-smoking laws.”

Doesn’t the Tobacco Act interfere with a basic human freedom?
The NCAS gives short shrift to the argument that smokers are being denied the freedom to enjoy one of life’s basic pleasures; such a ‘right’ falls away if the pleasure puts others in harm’s way.

Saloojee cites the Constitution, which states that each person has the right to an environment that is not harmful to health: “There is no constitutional right to smoke. The only possible exception to this that I know of is in England, where if you’re on trial for treason you have the right to smoke a cigarette!”

The NCAS also slams the argument that the stricter legislation could cause job and financial losses in the tobacco and hospitality industries. As Peter Ucko, NCAS Durector, has repeatedly stated, places that have gone smoke-free, such as New York, have not suffered dramatic negative impacts to their economies.

Also, the NCAS points out that the reduction in tobacco-related illness, which costs the country's overburdened health sector billions, makes economic sense.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Expert, Health24, May 2007

Do you think the Tobacco Act is for smokers’ own good - or are they being unfairly demonised and robbed of a basic freedom?


Only 100% smoke-free environments adequately protect from dangers of second-hand smoke. World Health Organisation press release, 29 May 2007

Smoking outside still causes second-hand smoke exposure to children. The Lancet, Volume 359, Issue 9318. R. Nelson (one of several similar studies)


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