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Smoke-free outdoor laws herald better community health

New South Wales’ smoke-free outdoors legislation will be one of the most comprehensive in Australia. Jess J/Flickr

The NSW government will introduce a smoke-free outdoors law this year, making it the sixth state or territory to have some variation of this kind of legislation. The announcement shows that community health and common sense can override the vested interests and powerful lobbying of Big Tobacco.

While New South Wales has been late in introducing these laws compared with other states, the legislation will be one of the most comprehensive.

NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner said the legislation – covering smoke-free children’s playgrounds, sporting fields when sports are being played, and covered bus shelters and taxi ranks – will be introduced in the spring session of parliament. The bans for smoking in commercial outdoor dining areas will come into effect in 2015.

Legislating for smoke-free outdoor areas is an important advance in reducing society’s entanglement with tobacco. As we have come to understand more about cancer, tobacco and the effects of second-hand smoke, there’s been a gradual shift in how society has viewed smoking. We have gone from a cigarette love affair in the 20th century, where Australia resembled a scene out of the heavy-smoking television show Mad Men, to viewing it as a potentially deadly habit with no benefits.

Thirty years ago, smoking in the workplace or on public transport was fine. Now, we wouldn’t even consider it.

The change in New South Wales started at the grassroots level. Some local councils took the initiative (even before smoke-free laws were introduced in other states) to go smoke-free in outdoor areas, such as parks and bus shelters, demonstrating its feasibility. Similar moves have been made in Victoria by local councils that have banned smoking in public places, such as playgrounds and outdoor eating areas.

Following the example set by local councils, some New South Wales café owners decided to ban smoking in alfresco dining areas, prioritising the health of their customers. In fact, a survey commissioned by the Cancer Council NSW showed eight out of ten café and restaurant owners believed that the smoke-free dining decision should not be left to councils, but should be legislated by state government.

The rest of the community also wants this type of legislation; a Newspoll survey conducted in New South Wales in February 2011 found four out of five people support smoke-free outdoor dining and more than nine out of ten adults believe playgrounds should be smoke-free.

So the New South Wales government is merely reflecting community sentiment with its announcement about the legislation, and there are strong grounds for other governments to do the same.

For those wanting to give smoking up, it’s much more difficult to quit when surrounded by smokers. lanier/Flickr

No doubt there will be the usual cries about the nanny state from those with a vested interest in perpetuating tobacco use. But let’s consider some of facts.

Smoking is a known carcinogen that, to put it bluntly, kills. Breathing second-hand smoke is not just an unpleasant experience, it can also lead to serious life-threatening health problems, including cancer, heart disease and asthma. So it makes sense to not expose our kids to second-hand smoke when, for instance, they’re playing in parks or playgrounds.

And for those wanting to give smoking up, it’s that much more difficult to quit when surrounded by smokers in playgrounds or while enjoying an alfresco meal.

Businesses can be reassured that the announcement will be good for them; the 2008 New South Wales population health survey showed that for every person who objects to smoke-free dining, seven people favour the move. This means smoke-free dining is good for health, good for dining and good for business.

Soon smoke-free outdoor areas will be a normal part of life. Cigarettes will be out of sight and hopefully out of mind. Kids can play in a smoke-free environment and meals can be enjoyed without a side order of smoke. And that’s a cause for celebration.

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