All fired up about puff of smoke

JANINE RANKIN
Last updated 12:00 03/09/2014

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OPINION: It had to happen at some stage, that a brave soul would step forward and challenge our city leaders about how far is too far to go in its crusade against smoking.

The trigger was a letter, a letter that has not been written yet, because no-one knows quite who to address it to.

It will ask the incoming ministers of health and local government to provide local authorities with powers to enforce bylaws banning smoking in public places.

There are still a lot of opportunities for nothing to come of it. The incoming ministers might pay no attention, or simply refuse.

If they do decide to act, they might act slowly.

The city council might never get around to formulating a bylaw, let alone picking up any powers that would enable punishments to be dished out to smokers breaching the rules.

But ultimately, councillors are seeking powers to whip smokers into submission.

As Community Services Council spokesman Fraser Greig asked the council's planning and policy committee, why would they even bother seeking powers unless they were contemplating using them?

Talking at about 300 words a minute to cram what he wanted to say into the three-minute time slot allowed for public comment, Greig acknowledged smoking is addictive and unhealthy, and generally not a good idea.

But it is also legal, and he could not understand why the council would want to further alienate a shrinking but still significant portion of its community by penalising them for doing something lawful.

He did not deny the health risks associated with smoking, but he also pointed out smokers paid considerable taxes that helped pay for healthcare, something consumers of more dangerous and illegal drugs did not do.

He agreed that smoking harmed families, especially where parents' priority for spending put tobacco purchases ahead of food and children's other needs. The same logic could be applied to gambling and illegal drug use and various other harmful habits, he said.

For most smokers, their habit did not prevent them from being active, productive workers and members of society. They did not show up hungover, or fail to show at all.

As for smoking being unpleasant, he argued that was a purely subjective thing.

He found the perfumes some people wore in public quite abhorrent, but nobody was suggesting people should be punished for that.

Although, as an aside, there is an urban legend that it was once illegal for women in California to wear a housecoat while driving their children to school, so there is a precedent for criminalising bad taste.

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Anyhow, encouragement and support for smokers to quit was working, Greig said, and there was no need to further "pick on" those who continued to indulge.

Even the Government's own "smokefree by 2025" policy allowed a 5 per cent margin of error, an acceptance that 95 per cent is close enough, leaving one in 20 people free to puff in peace. Then there was his argument that society was full of issues that were more important.

He was on a hiding to nowhere trying to convince councillor and Shepherd's Rest boss Lew Findlay that there were homeless people in Palmerston North, but you can appreciate his point.

Is stopping people from smoking, outdoors, in public view, really something that should be high up on the council's priority list?

Should it even be on its list at all, actually, since the Government re-wrote the Local Government Act and disposed of the "four wellbeings" as the essence of council's role?

The new purpose of local government, which every council officer references in every report written, is the provision of good-quality local infrastructure, local public services, and performance of regulatory functions in a way that is most cost-effective for households and businesses.

They are to be delivered in a way that is efficient, effective, and appropriate to present and anticipated future circumstances.

Fortunately, there is a handy catch-all, to enable democratic local decision-making and action by, and on behalf of, communities.

So if this community really wants to make smokers invisible, that's the clause that would justify the council risking the estrangement of some good people with a bad habit.

Endnotes:

Amid our despair that young people are not engaging as active citizens, it was delightful to see the Palmerston North City Council chamber over-run with youth this week.

There was a group of students from Westmount School, who sat quietly in the public gallery while city councillors pondered where to locate a junior road safety park.

Not so quiet were the toddlers, brought along by parents eager to fundraise to get the project off the ground. They explored up and down the steps, two venturing close to the hallowed heights of the press box.

The concept of the council chamber as an adventure playground has not been entertained by regular inhabitants.

Whether the youngsters will remember it as a good day remains to be seen, but it is heartening to think they have parents who will one day be able to take them to the bike park and explain how they played a small role in making it happen.

- Manawatu Standard

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