Self-interested excuses smoke and mirrors

There is a jagged hole in the smokefree legislation and it must be filled. A study of Wellington restaurants found some patrons were nearly as exposed to smoke as they might have been outside with the smokers. The University of Otago study discovered that smoke from the smoking area was drifting inside and fouling the air. This is completely unacceptable and makes a farce of the law.

There are the usual excuses from the self-interested. Restaurant Association president Mike Egan, who runs several dining spots in Wellington, says he is not aware of any problems and is "surprised" and "disappointed" by the survey results. However, he doesn't see any need for tough measures because smoking will just "fizzle out by itself".

This is a cloud of self-serving nonsense. There is clearly a problem, whether Egan is aware of it or not. His surprise and disappointment are irrelevant, and his call for inaction is weak. Smoking won't just fizzle out by itself, and diners should certainly not have to put up with other people's smoke until that happy smoke-free day arrives.

Something needs to be done now. Queensland has apparently banned smoking anywhere near entrances, and there is no obvious reason why New Zealand should not follow suit. The smokefree legislation was designed to stop smoke poisoning the air of diners. It was not meant to be a kind of half-pie or porous measure, a sort of symbolic gesture of goodwill. It was meant to put an end once and for all to smoke-filled dining rooms.

The Ministry of Health is running to catch up with the problem. A court ruled last year that the way the officials assessed "outdoor" smoking areas was inadequate and unlawful. The Cancer Society and the Problem Gambling Foundation had objected to the ministry's approval of a SkyCity casino smoking area they considered "clearly indoors".

This is an embarrassing blow for the ministry. The public's health watchdog has been found wanting, and in an area where extreme rigour is required. The tobacco industry and its friends will always try to circumvent the health laws, and they must never be allowed to do so. Officials clearly failed to do their job at the casino, which has a vested interest in subverting the smokefree legislation.

No doubt the dining and gambling institutions will bleat about the cost of providing real smoke-free areas. The answer to their plight is simple. Either they obey the law or they close down. Whether they can afford to put in proper smoke-free areas is their problem and no-one else's. It would be altogether convenient for bars and restaurants to have it both ways, promising smoke-free areas while going soft on the smokers. The owners, after all, want to keep as many customers as possible, and this kind of fudging allows them to do so.

The fudging has to stop. The record suggests officials have been slack. Only 13 businesses have been prosecuted in the decade since the smokefree legislation was passed, and only one of those was in Wellington. It's time to get tough.

The Dominion Post