BRACEBRIDGE - Despite opposition from the health unit, councillors pushed for a “made in Bracebridge” pilot project this week to address the student smoking controversy at a local high school.
The suggestion came when Dr. Charles Gardner of the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit was invited to speak at a general committee meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 4 about the legality of a smoking zone created last year behind Bracebridge and Muskoka Lakes Secondary School.
Though Gardner told councillors that the Smoke-Free Ontario Act prohibits smoking or holding lighted tobacco on the grounds of any school, Bracebridge councillors wondered if the rule could be challenged with an experiment.
“I don’t know why we might not be able to piece together some sort of pilot project … right now you have got people smoking in front of the school, maybe we let that circumstance continue till the end of the school year while you have a team study it,” said Coun. Scott Young. “And then next year we start out school with (the smoking zone) and maybe you’ll come up with some more definitive data with the blessing of Ontario Public Health and council and the school board … and maybe we help the whole province figure this problem out just by having a little pilot project right here.”
Gardner, however, said having an established smoking zone runs counter to the health unit’s efforts in smoking cessation.
“When we look at what helps people quit smoking, making it difficult has been shown to help people to not start in the first place,” he said, citing similar smoke-free policies in workplaces and hospitals. “We have research that it helps people to quit. We have research that shows when you have strong policy prohibiting smoking on school grounds, it helps youth and reduces smoking rates.”
Set up by town staff in conjunction with the Trillium Lakelands District School Board, the designated smoking area was created as a practical approach to dealing with smokers, who have to move off school grounds to areas where they couldn’t be monitored by teachers. Town staff have said they’ve received complaints from locals about cigarette butts littering the ground near the Sportsplex next door, and smokers creating a traffic hazard when they spill out onto the parking lots and roadways.
Though the land where the smoking zone was situated is owned by the town, the health unit argues that it still falls within the jurisdiction of the Education Act, which includes “lands and premises used in connection with the unit or institution.”
The health unit pulled the plug on the smoking zone this past September, and the smokers have now returned to their old haunts. Gardner said if the smoking zone was reactivated, the school’s principal could be charged under the Smoke-Free Ontario Act.
Deputy Mayor Rick Maloney, who represents the ward the school is located in, said he’s personally taken the time to observe the behaviour of smokers at the school, and backed Young’s alternative to the health unit’s by-the-book approach.
“I don’t want a decision made by the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Education, who have never been to the front of BMLSS and will never come to the front of BMLSS, I want a ‘made in Bracebridge’ solution,” he said.
Gardner told councillors that creating a special area for smokers could normalize and encourage smoking, and that smoking remains one of the most important preventable causes of death amongst youths.
But because smokers are now pushed out onto the sidewalk where students, busses and vehicles enter the school, Mayor Graydon Smith said Gardner’s preferred solution might actually be giving the public a greater degree of exposure to smoking than a designated smoking zone would.
“When the goal is the de-normalization or the ostracization of those that are smoking, to have them as the gateway to the institution … it seems to be counter to what your goals are,” he said. “I believe it is actually possible that it is normalizing it to some degree because that is what students are exposed to on both their entrance and exit from the school, and of course during breaks. Other people in our community are exposed to that as they drive in and use the shared facilities in that area.”
Cragg also reiterated Smith’s suggestions, suggesting that the smoking area actually did more to screen the public from exposure to smokers.
“We don’t want to send the wrong message; however, we looked at it as a way to take the issue off the streets,” he said. “Really, the street’s more public than the proposed area we were looking at. As long as smoking is still a legal activity, which it is, although a controlled activity, perhaps we could get the health unit to propose a better solution rather than just putting it out on the street.”
Gardner said the research showing the benefits of banning smokers is “stronger and probably outweighs” the effect of having smokers in front of the school. He told council that the health unit’s position has the support of the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, and refuted the safety concerns raised by councillors, saying none of the health units and health professionals he polled reported any such problems under the Smoke-Free Ontario Act, and the Tobacco Control Act of 1994.
“None of them indicated they had any incidents of injuries or serious incidents that had arisen during the time of these two pieces of legislation relating to prohibiting of smoking on school grounds, or having students in front of schools as a result,” he said.