Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em: Violators rarely get ticketed for smoking in Metro Vancouver

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If you smoke a cigarette in parks and on beaches in parts of Metro Vancouver, you’re subject to a fine. But chances are slim you’ll ever be ticketed.

Municipal governments with smoking bans for their outdoor gathering places are counting on signage, education and warnings for compliance but that may change when marijuana is legalized later this year.

A handful of cities, including Vancouver, Victoria, Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam, and the regional district of Metro Vancouver, can ticket smokers but because patrols have to cover large areas, few fines are issued.

Since 2011 — when Vancouver first banned smoking in its parks and on its beaches — there have been 1,003 tickets and 620 written warnings, including 127 tickets and 84 warnings in 2017.

“We rely heavily on public education to keep our beaches smoke free,” said Parks Board spokeswoman Margo Harper in an email. “Most residents and visitors, when reminded of the no smoking rules in parks and beaches, are happy to butt out.”

What effect the legalization of marijuana will have on how smoking bans are patrolled is still unknown, she said.

“The issue of additional enforcement of smoking bylaws in parks is under review as part of the larger city response to legalization,” Harper said.

Vancouver police spokesman Sgt. Jason Robillard said calls made to police about smoking where a ban exists receive a low priority, unless there is a fire threat, and parks staff and park rangers may be better equipped to deal with those complaints. He said it’s unknown how the legalization of marijuana will affect that but “there will definitely be changes.”

Harper said for the ban on tobacco smoking, residents are “taking it upon themselves to remind visitors of our bylaws.”

When a local approached three Spanish-speaking visitors smoking on the beach at English Bay on a recent sunny afternoon, they were immediately apologetic.

“I’m sorry,” said Monica Sanchez, who’s from Mexico City. “I always look for the sign but I didn’t see one.”

But further down the beach, Tim Walsh was puffing on a cigarette while enjoying the view of English Bay as he does regularly from his favourite park bench on Beach Avenue, and fuming over the “unfair” ban.

His regular bench is “right at the edge” of city land but he knows he’s still subject to a fine.

“It’s crazy. It’s stupid,” said Walsh, 60, who lives in the West End. He said the many restrictions mean the only place he can legally smoke is on the curb.

“You have to do it somewhere,” he said. “It’s just a simple pleasure. I think they should have areas you can smoke in the parks.”

In Metro Vancouver parks since 2011 when the ban was implemented, there have been 51 written warnings or park notices and one $500 ticket.

“People generally are really compliant,” said Metro Vancouver spokesman David Leavens. “We don’t walk around with ticket books handing out tickets.”

He said patrols are more concerned about potential fire risks from smokers than the possibility of nuisance second-hand smoke.

(There have been 12 tickets issued by conservation officers or other provincial officials to people dropping a burning substance, likely a cigarette, on Crown land such as provincial parks since 2016, when it became a ticketable offence, according to a provincial spokesman.)

It remains to be seen what the federal legalization of marijuana will mean for regional parks, he said.

“You can’t walk around the park with a beer in your hands,” he said. “We hope it would be the same for marijuana.”

But if toking is allowed in the same place as smoking, that could mean stepped up enforcement of a ban.

“If it leads to more people smoking in the parks, we would expect there to be more conflicts and more complaints,” he said.

B.C. Ferries in January banned smoking from all its premises, including within passengers’ cars on ferries, but smokers will be informed about the ban not ticketed, said spokeswoman Deborah Marshall.

North Vancouver city council recently voted down a proposal to ban public outdoor smoking.

Mayor Darrell Mussatto said there’s no research or evidence that smoking outdoors can cause health problems to others, “we just couldn’t enforce” a ban and ticketing requires an RCMP officer because city staff can’t ask citizens to produce ID.

He also said a ban wouldn’t be necessary because “most people are reasonable and want to be thoughtful of others. We hope the same would be true with marijuana smokers.”

“In general, we see very good compliance” to no-smoking policies, said Rob Cunningham of the Canadian Cancer Society.

He said bans take time for people to become accustomed to and pointed out that there was much opposition to banning smoking from bars and restaurants in 2000 but “how often do we see someone smoking in a bar or restaurant these days?”

He said compliance is best encouraged by erecting signs to educate people and eventually it becomes an issue of social acceptability.

“If you saw a parent smoking near the field where kids were playing soccer, you probably would remind them there’s no smoking,” he said.

“Every further restriction on where you can smoke helps to reduce smoking in general,” said Cunningham.

And he said the same restrictions apply to marijuana smoking because “the harmful substances in second-hand cannabis smoke is similar to tobacco. There should be the same ban on smoking anything.”

Each municipality is free to adopt their own smoking bylaws, said Kerry Jang, a Vancouver councillor who is on the Union of B.C. Municipalities committee that liaises on smoking issues with the province.

Not surprisingly it’s uncertain what changes in bans or enforcement the legalization of marijuana will bring.

But he encouraged people to log a complaint about smoking violations, even if they didn’t think the police or parks staff could respond in time, because it builds a database for a city to know where the problems are, “it creates maps of hot spots.”

A telephone survey done for the province’s report on cannabis regulation found that 68 per cent of people liked the idea of cannabis cafes, 63 per cent said adults should be able to use non-medical pot in some spaces outside their homes, and 48 per cent said public smoking or vaping of non-medicinal cannabis should be allowed where tobacco smoking and vaping is allowed. The percentages in favour of those three ideas rose for public feedback in the report.

slazaruk@postmedia.com

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