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Blowing hot and cold

This contribution has been submitted to Webdiary by a student in the Online Journalism unit for the Masters in Media Practice and Masters in Publishing courses at The University of Sydney as part of the unit's assessment. The topics covered in the pieces awaiting publication are interesting – and diverse. We hope that Webdiarists will enjoy reading them, as well as giving these aspiring journalists plenty of constructive commentary.

Blowing hot and cold
by Soharni Tennekoon

Summer’s on its way. And just as the weather picks up and we flock outdoors to our local beer gardens, a dark cloud looms over us. Is it smoke from our cigarettes? No. Ironically, it’s the potential lack thereof.

Those who relish the idea of a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, your days may be numbered. Following the recent contention between country club Dubbo RSL and the NSW Health Dept over what constitutes an “outdoor smoking area”, with a possible prosecution risk, Dubbo RSL has taken the matter to the Supreme Court for a clear definition.

While the Supreme Court deliberates, venues and smokers collectively hold their stale breath; a ruling in favour of NSW Health’s interpretation could mean trouble for venues across the state, leaving a gaggle of huffy puffers in its wake.

ClubsNSW Media Relations Manager Jeremy Bath maintains that like the vast majority of clubs, Dubbo RSL offers smokers a “partial roof” for protection from irksome weather: “You can’t expect smokers to willingly stand outside in an outdoor area that doesn’t have protection from the elements.”

Bath says, “The legislation is about protecting non-smokers from having to breathe in second-hand smoke, and I think they’ve got the situation pretty well handled as it is, and it doesn’t really require any changes.”

So what does the current smoking law state? According to NSW Health, ““Enclosed” means having a ceiling or roof and, except for doors and passageways, is completely or substantially enclosed”. Smoking is only permitted outdoors in venues in an area not exceeding 25% of the total area.

And while Dubbo RSL and the like interpret the legislation to permit an outdoor covered area, NSW Health now deems any covered area as a breach of law. But why stress this in hindsight instead of when the law was being passed?

Surely, the very fact that there is room for interpretation means this is arguably a case of sloppy legislation rather than a breach of law. For instance, where do you draw the line of a “covered area”? At bus stops? Umbrellas?

Currently, the Supreme Court’s decision looks like it could go one of three ways: a ruling in favour of NSW Health with a Grandfather clause, which, Bath explains is that the new ruling would not apply retrospectively, thus saving venues with existing outdoor areas huge losses and a leg-up over any new competition.

Or, a ruling in favour of clubs, in which case scores of new venues could implement their own outdoor areas thanks to the safety of a clear definition.

Or, rather disastrously, the Supreme Court could rule in favour of NSW Health’s interpretation, sans a clause, which would mean months of reconstruction. With venues state-wide (including over 1400 clubs) having invested more than $422 million (in the past 2 years) in constructing outdoor areas, this would not be good news.

Not to mention the other potential repercussions: littering, noise and lack of custom. Smokers may choose to find a more smoker-friendly environment to drink instead – like friends' houses. Merely speculative at this point, but as a smoker myself it’s more than possible that I’d look into alternative locations.

And from a non-smoker’s standpoint, it may be off-putting to find a string of noisy, inebriated smokers hanging out on footpaths outside a venue. Something, Australian Hotels Association (AHA) Director, National Affairs Bill Healey says is already an issue despite the current availability of outdoor areas: “With the introduction of indoor smoking bans across Australia, smokers have been congregating on streets outside pubs – creating a range of new business challenges for pub owners, including cleaning up butt litter.”

While NSW Health stands firmly by its interpretation, it refuses to comment until a verdict is reached – which is expected in a month’s time.

Smoking is a contentious issue and it would be daft to argue that NSW Health’s intentions here aren’t above board – for it couldn’t get more respectable than the good of public health – but things get prickly when legislation is so vague that it’s left open to interpretation.

Smoking is still a legal activity and it seems the indoor smoking ban helped reach a compromise in protecting non-smokers from second-hand smoke. Whether to ban smoking in public places is an entirely different issue (and one that needs to be taken up with the Federal Government), so it would be grim to see clubs, pubs and other venues (and smokers) pay for what is arguably slipshod legislation. Let’s just hope it all blows over.


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Loopholes give clubs too much power

Soharni, there is nothing like the topic of smoking laws to put a bad taste in people’s mouths!   I do agree that the current laws are open for interpretation, which clubs all across the country have been able to work with. 

Finding the loopholes to allow them to build outdoor areas to allow smokers is something they have been getting away with for a while now, it seems like they are starting to push their luck if they are trying to back NSW Health into a corner.  It can only backfire.   Your story is strongly researched, and well backed up with quotes from reputable sources. However, it could have been shortened considerably by cutting excess information which would have given it greater impact. You are aggressively pursuing both a news story and commentary in one, and probably have two decent articles here.    

Give private spaces to smokers

Soharni, it is a hard nut to crack. Smoking is unhealthy for not only smokers, but also passive smoker. It is obvious that kepping the fresh air in public places is more important. Fortunately, there have been policies of banning smoking inside pubs and clubs in Australia for a long time.

Similarly, in China a recent law limits smoking in public places. However, in some cities, some companies do not set a special , space for smokers, and employees are banned from smoking inside the building. Therefore, over lunchtime, some employees smoke just out of the door of the building. It is inappropriate. Then the cleaner have to clean up the butts.

Therefore, facing the troublesome problem, in my opinion, government should set special spaces rather than force smokers outside. It will keep the environment clean and give the smoker enough space as well.

Separate, but not too separate!

Soharni, this is a really interesting article! I personallyam a non-smoker, however I do enjoy the odd cigarette. Just as my situation would suggest I take the middle road on this one. I was in the Ivy the other night and was shocked to see people smoking in the seated areas. While there is a massive hole in the ceiling opening into the sky, the venue is still at least half covered, and the 'hole' is not disconnected from the main area in the least. Like you said, the idea of a covered area is still quite obscure and open to misinterpretation. I don’t really like how smokers are treated as leapers nowadays. People engage in destructive activities all the time and are not barked about and shunned to the outskirts to the extent that smokers are (or will be). Of course, the difference is that smoking affects other people whereas the other vices such as alcohol, drugs, overeating etc do not. So it’s tough to figure out where to draw the line. I guess it must be considered unfair to expose people to smoking who would otherwise not expose themselves to it. I think the variables must be the‘where’ and the ‘when’. In a restaurant, seated guests enjoying a meal shouldn’t have to endure waves of smoke contaminating their air and food, but in a bar, late at night, where most people filling themselves with liquor and lurid conversation, surely the odd gust of smoke is the least of everyone’s worries. Separate but not too separate, I say. 

Speaking as a smoker

Soharni, as a smoker myself I do sympathise with those in your article. It is no fun hiding under a 1m x1m canopy with 30 complete strangers whilst trying to stay dry from the bitter weather outside. 

However, I do agree with the law to not smoke inside. It's horrible for non-smokers, it makes visibility within bars and pubs limited and your clothes and hair smell for days on end. One thing I have noticed from these laws is that not only do they keep changing their minds about where we can or cannot smoke, as you so clearly stated in your story, but also the changing views of smoking in general. Non-smokers now look at me alarmingly when I light up outside as if it is not my right to do so at all!

I don't know if a balance can ever be found. 

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