Dawson City mayor John Steins wants the former Wild West town to progress into the modern age and butt out.
But he doesn’t feel individual municipalities like his should have to legislate their own ashtrays.
So, instead of drafting a municipal bylaw in Dawson forbidding smoking, Steins is challenging Health and Social Services Minister Brad Cathers to impose a territory-wide smoking ban in buildings staffed by workers or open to the public.
“We (Dawson’s council) could ban smoking — we could do it tomorrow and that’s not out of the question,” said Steins in an interview Tuesday.
“But to me it’s a question of principle. They’re the senior government, they have dominion over the whole territory, and they’re in a better position to enforce it,” he said.
Steins has issued the challenge to Cathers on his popular blog, www.themayorsblog.com.
The post explains that he saw a full-page newspaper ad from the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board proclaiming 2006 as the year of accountability for safety in the workplace.
That message “rings a bit hollow” being delivered by a Yukon Party government that appears reticent to impose a smoking ban and that has several cabinet ministers with financial interests in bars and restaurants, said Steins.
Even Craig Tuton, the government-appointed chair of the worker compensation board and Yukon Party campaign manager during the last territorial election, owns a Whitehorse bar.
“I’m suggesting the minister of Health doesn’t have the resolve to deal with this issue, but that he knows it’s a health risk,” he said.
“And, it’s a given that the WCB has no appetite to deal with this important health issue.
“Government’s job is to meddle in business.
“In a bar situation, everything is governed: the number of people you can have in there, the drinking age, the type of alcohol and the strength.
“I can’t just open up a bar; there’s a lot of hoops you have to jump through. So why is it a stretch then to forbid smoking, when everybody knows, in the face of insurmountable proof, that it’s unhealthy and it causes disease?”
At most tourist destinations across North America, smokers wouldn’t dare light a cigarette in a public place — “even at a bus stop,” said Steins.
But in Dawson, many of the establishments frequented by visitors and locals are like hot boxes filled with smoke, he said.
This creates health risks for visitors and employees and Dawsonites, he added.
“These tourists spend a fortune to get up here, they go for a drink at the bar, and they’re forced to breathe smoke. Gerties — it’s like an ashtray in there.”
Steins isn’t alone: the Dawson City Forum website features large strings of debate over smoking in the town’s public buildings.
According to Health Canada, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland have a 100-per-cent ban on smoking in public workplaces.
British Columbia, Alberta and Prince Edward Island restrict smoking in most public places, but allow it in bars and restaurants.
Workers’ compensation boards in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have banned smoking in all enclosed businesses, such as bars and restaurants.
But the Yukon has no smoking bans in place at all, reads Health Canada’s website.
“We’re by far the most behind in Canada on dealing with this,” said acting NDP leader Steve Cardiff on Wednesday.
During the territorial election, the NDP proposed a territory-wide ban on smoking because it and secondhand smoke are the No. 1 preventable causes of disease in Canada, said Cardiff.
The NDP’s proposed ban would apply to indoor buildings that the public has access to or that are staffed by workers.
That would prevent the ban from affecting home businesses with no employees and people’s houses, he said.
Cardiff, himself a smoker, also notes the financial burden smoking places on our health-care system.
“The job and the responsibility of the territorial government and the minister of Health is to deliver health care and protect the public’s health,” he said.
“We have all kinds of other territory-wide health programs, why is the minister shirking his responsibility and leaving it up to municipalities?”
During question period debates in November, the NDP pushed Cathers to explain the government’s position on a territory-wide smoking ban.
“We are certainly very concerned with the high rate of smoking among Yukoners,” said Cathers on November 27.
“I would point out that we have not ruled out the possibility of developing smoking legislation at some point; however, it is not the appropriate time to do so.
“There are significant concerns in rural areas of the economic impacts of a territory-wide ban.”
Cathers added that every Yukon municipality has the power to implement legislation to restrict smoking.
A 2005 survey on addictions found that the rate of smoking in the Yukon has declined from 41 per cent to 28 per cent between 1990 and 2005, said Health and Social Services spokesperson Pat Living.
Steins isn’t afraid Dawson’s frontier town image would be ruined if people were forced to smoke outside rather than inside.
“When you’re lying in bed in the emphysema ward, we’ll play you a video of how great the Wild West was, with six shooters and guys with cigarettes and prostitutes,” he said wryly.
“Why don’t I just argue for the days like it was in the 1970s when I showed up? You could stagger around the streets with an open bottle and puke and take a leak in corners and smoke until the cows came home.
“All that’s been taken away.”
All except indoor smoking, that is.