(This column was published in the North Shore News on Feb. 9, 2000)


WCB’s ‘Nicotine Nazis’ should butt out

By Leo Knight

THIS anti-smoking crusade by the Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) is really getting ridiculous.  


Now, let me first say that I do not smoke cigarettes, although I used to be a smoker. I will, however, plead guilty to taking some pleasure in an occasional corona (Dominican or Honduran preferably). Having said that, I have no axe to grind in this debate beyond some observations.  


Last week I was asked to a meeting downtown with a professional colleague. The usual meeting place was eschewed in favor of another establishment. The new place was chosen because my colleague is a smoker and he wanted to go to a pub not complying with the WCB ban.  


But instead of overt non-compliance, the bar was charging patrons $2 "rent" for an ashtray.  


Apparently the money raised is to be applied to a legal fund in the event of enforcement action by the WCB.  


According to the bartender I spoke to, they were raising over $1,000 per week in this fashion. I might add the pub was full of mostly non-smoking patrons, but full.  


The next day, a Saturday afternoon, I met with a business associate in a well-known North Vancouver pub, the Queen's Cross. The Saturday afternoon trade in that long-time North Shore fixture consisted of the two of us and one couple seated at the bar having lunch.  


Normally, at least in my experience, the pub would be fairly full on a Saturday afternoon. The bartender confirmed my thoughts and said he personally was losing over a third of his normal income in tips because of the downturn in business.  


A couple of days later I was in Valemont, a small town about four hours north of Kamloops. I went for dinner in a pub across from the hotel, an airy, modern establishment called the Loose Moose.  


There, I encountered an equally quiet pub at the height of the dinner hour and with hockey games on the myriad of TV screens around the room.  


The bartender described the changes to the business since the WCB regulations came into effect. She said people traveling through now just have something to eat and return to their rooms with a six-pack. She specifically mentioned the snowmobile aficionados called "sledders" who come there from Alberta.  


There are only three liquor establishments in Valemont. Beside the Loose Moose, there is the bar at the Valemont hotel and a local Legion.  


As far as I was able to determine they were all in reluctant compliance. Even the Legion, which is constructing a separate ventilated room for the old soldiers to have their smoke along with their wobbly pop.  


Their current practice is to go outside in the snow and cold to suck back a cigarette before returning to their glasses and their memories inside. The spectre of seeing men in their 70s and 80s, who had fought wars for freedom, being forced outside to indulge in what is for many a life-long habit, is ironic indeed.  


As I said initially, I have no particular axe to grind in all of this. But on Monday morning I was listening to Peter Warren on CKNW and he was speaking with a guest he described as "Joe SixPack."  


According to the story being told, "Joe SixPack" had been to the Grizzly game in Vancouver and had visited several watering holes before and after the game. In one such place he encountered a customer smoking despite the WCB posters of premise compliance.  


Our hero asked management to have the man extinguish the offending butt. Management refused, saying they had no authority to enforce a WCB regulation if the customer chose not to comply.  


"Joe SixPack" asked for, and ultimately received, his money back and left the bar.  


During the radio interview, "Joe SixPack" stated he would be calling the WCB snitch line to report the incident.  


A caller asked if "Joe's" middle name was Ian, and received a "no comment" in reply. In truth, "Joe" was really Ian Koenigsfest, long-time CKNW employee and former producer of Philip Till's World Tonight show.  


Why the deception? The truth is, it would appear, that Koenigsfest is one of the self-appointed enforcers, the smoking police.  


These people go from bar to bar looking for non-compliance even though they may have never set foot in the establishment before and never will again, merely to call the snitch line.  


These Nicotine Nazis have been around for years and have toiled in virtual obscurity. Now the new WCB regulations have empowered them like never before.  


I contacted the WCB to try to find out if the snitch line was being dominated by the same people over and over again. Not surprisingly, the Nicotine Nazis do not have to identify themselves when making a complaint serious enough to cause a significant fine or even put someone out of business.  


Interestingly enough, Donna Freeman, the WCB Director of Public Affairs, also let it slip that the six people manning the phones were WCB employees but the rest of the cost was being borne by the health ministry.  


I prodded further and she confirmed it "is a joint initiative between WCB and the Ministry of Health."  


Now I found this very interesting because earlier in the conversation I asked why the WCB was driving the anti-smoking campaign through regulations and not the government by instituting a broader legislative ban on smoking in public places such as was done in California?  


Freeman said the WCB was not privy "to what the government has planned or not planned."  


Oh really? Then why the joint initiative?  


I support the long-term goal of eliminating smoking from our society. But it is as likely to happen anyway given the current trends in a decade or so. Why must we be subjected to the sort of nannyism displayed by, of all people, the WCB?  


This issue is really societal and no amount of propaganda can change that. Therefore, it is the government that must address it, not the WCB. But the government seems to be hiding behind the WCB's skirts on this one.  


I wonder how this policy is going down in the bars frequented by the Teamsters, or the ILWU or the IWA?






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