09/25/2013 01:30 EDT | Updated 11/25/2013 05:12 EST

Choking on Smoking Bans

Outdoor smoking bans like the one being proposed for Toronto are in large part one big finger-wag at smokers for daring to defy the public health establishment's exhortations and advice. They're not so much safety measures as payback for being recalcitrant.

All this talk of Toronto and Ontario expanding outdoor smoking ban makes me want a cigarette. And I don't even smoke.

Unlike a lot of smokers' rights advocates, I actually have very low tolerance for smoke. I blame my grandmother. She used to smoke in the car, which was a terrible combination with my tendency to get motion sick. The smell of certain brands of cigarettes still takes me back to being a six-year-old in the backseat of an unconscionably bouncy sedan, trying not to hurl. As it happens, at around the same time of my life, one of my parents' acquaintances came to our house for a visit and smoked a pipe throughout the entire evening, during which I was, coincidentally, suffering from the stomach flu.

So it's not a great leap to say that the smell of smoke almost literally makes me sick. I certainly associate it with needing to vomit. Seriously, all those grotesque high school health presentations about diseased lungs were unnecessary for me; I had no more desire to take up smoking than I did to get food poisoning.

The thing is, though, that there is something else that has always nauseated me even more than smoke: unjust rules. Fun fact: One of my most oft repeated phrases as a child was, "It's not fair." And "not fair" is how the recommendations from Dr. David McKeown, Toronto's medical officer of health, strike me. He is suggesting extending the already extensive ban on smoking to include beaches, outdoor sports fields, public squares, parks and outdoor restaurant and bar patios.

Banning smoking is excessive in all of these venues. They're open air spots where smoke dissipates and people have plenty of room to spread out. Don't want your kids subjected to the guy smoking on the beach towel next to you? Do the same thing you'd do if you didn't like the smell of the hot dog he was eating or the sight of his inadequately sized Speedo. Move your towel. But at least with the public areas an argument can be made that the government gets more of a say in the environment because it has a mandate to make these areas open to all. (Of course, in this construction, "all" does not include active smokers.) Banning smoking in outdoor bar and restaurant patios is more irksome because it's impacting private areas that are by no means supposed to be appealing and open to all comers. If an innocent child is inhaling second-hand smoke at a busy sports-bar patio late on a Saturday night, the real problem lies with those who thought it wise to bring him there, not with the establishment's choice to allow smoking. Not everything is, or should be made, a public health issue.

The idea of banning smoking at all of these outdoor areas must also be put into context. In Ontario, it is currently illegal to smoke indoors in bars, restaurants and even private clubs. Smoking is banned in indoor workplaces. It's verboten on covered patios. On the homefront, smokers are encouraged to spare their fellow householders (and furniture) by refraining from lighting up in their own residences. So what's left? If you take away public outdoor spaces and private bar and restaurant patios, you're pretty much confining the poor slob who would just like to enjoy a smoke with his beer to setting up a picnic table on his own lawn. Is that really necessary? Or is it maybe a sign that the public health establishment is running out of things to ban and ways to make itself appear useful?

I'm inclined to favour the latter explanation when I hear quotes like this one from Mr. McKeown's report: "Images of people smoking in public places normalize smoking in the minds of children and youth." The report also harps on the "importance of role modelling a smoke-free lifestyle." I truly hope that we have not arrived at a juncture where setting a bad example for kids is grounds for making something illegal. But it seems we might have.

Next I expect calls for banning public soda consumption and public use of salt shakers. Warning: You know those public benches scattered around town? Although you think they're there for you to sit on, you'd be safer to use them as exercise props for step-ups and hurdle races. Then you'll be ready for when sitting on them like a schlub gets banned due to the fact that it normalizes being sedentary in the minds of children and youth. Which may be sooner than you think given how readily the government seems willing to move from "directly impacting someone else's health" to "setting a bad example" as a valid reason for making a behaviour off limits.

I will return to my opening point for a moment. I dislike second-hand smoke more than the average person. Yup, in many cases, it makes me want to puke. Yet I find this very easy to manage. I don't choose to hang out at outdoor bar patios that are overrun with chain smokers. If I am strolling in a park or on a beach and am bothered by smoke (which, incidentally, I cannot recall ever happening, perhaps due to the fact that these places are OUTSIDE), I can simply shuffle over to another spot.

Couldn't others adopt these very simple strategies for dealing with this supposed scourge of outdoor secondhand smoke? Oh, yeah...others shouldn't have to make any concessions at all because they are virtuous non-smokers. I sometimes forget about that little detail. On the one hand, these bans are framed as simple, straightforward health measures. On the other hand, I'm sure I'm not the only one who senses in them a moral scolding. I think they're in large part one big finger-wag at smokers for daring to defy the public health establishment's exhortations and advice. They're not so much safety measures as payback for being recalcitrant.

So, yes, I'm bothered by government using laws to finger-wag about self-care. Which is why talk of extending Toronto's smoking ban makes me want a cigarette. I want to be the one making decisions about my own health and habits. And I want others to be doing the same thing about their own health and habits too. Like a helicopter parent, the government is imposing its controlling hyper-presence upon us to keep us safe and solve all our problems, sometimes even before such problems even exist. But kids need room to experience hardship and make bad choices, otherwise they never learn to do anything for themselves. Citizens are the same way.