Alison Garwood Jones

Should smoking on patios be banned?

Originally published in July 2010 in

A Toronto-based scientist has renewed calls for a smoking ban on patios, saying that outdoor smoking at restaurants still poses a serious health risk — as serious as indoor smoking, which was banned four years ago.

Roberta Ferrence points to several new studies that show the dangers posed by outdoor tobacco smoke to servers and patrons is considerable and cumulative, especially if smokers are sitting at a table less than nine metres away from other guests, which is the case on most Toronto patios.

“It forms a mushroom cloud, like an atomic bomb that rains down on us,” says Ferrence, who works with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and is also executive director of the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit.

Local politicians, however, say smoking on patios is not an issue with voters. “I don’t get a lot of calls about it,” says Toronto city councillor John Filion (Ward 23, Willowdale).

As chair of the Toronto Board of Health, Filion was a leader in the campaign to ban smoking indoors in bars and restaurants. The Smoke-Free Ontario Act, which contains the ban, went into effect early in 2006.

That law followed a publicity campaign that included a federal government commercial featuring Heather Crowe, a retired server from Ottawa, who told TV viewers: “I have a smoker’s tumour in my lung the size of my hand and I never smoked a day in my life.”

Policy-makers across the country committed to banning smoking inside bars and restaurants. The law went into effect nine days after Crowe died.

Now, scientists are saying Ontario’s law doesn’t go far enough. They advocate a ban on smoking in all places where people congregate. They point out that Alberta has smoke-free patios. Nova Scotia and Quebec also plan to review their outdoor tobacco policies this fall.

Part of the problem, scientists like Ferrence say, is that many assume wind blows the smoke away. “But with a bit of wind and luck it will rain down 10 feet away on someone else,” she says.

Ferrence points to a 2007 study by Stanford University researchers, the first of its kind to measure air quality over patios where smoking was allowed. They found peak and average outdoor tobacco levels near smokers during the cocktail and dinner hours rivalled the indoor smoke-particle concentrations that eventually led to the bans.

Ferrence conducted her own study in 2009 and came to similar conclusions.

Monitoring the air quality over 25 patios in Toronto, her team found that exposure to smoke on patios was high. In an eight-hour shift, bar workers were exposed to particulates in smoke at an average 367 micrograms per cubic metre* for at least 30 minutes. Studies have demonstrated that exposure to this level of smoke for even half an hour leads to sustained vascular injury.

The study, Ferrence says, debunks the myth that smoke over patios rises and dissipates.

The Smoke-Free Ontario Act doesn’t go far enough, she warns. She argues that a smoking ban in outdoor workspaces is needed to protect servers and patrons from the dangers of secondhand smoke.

Some bar owners are ready for a change.

“Most of us survived the bylaw that banned smoking inside because it was a blanket bylaw that applied to all the surrounding communities,” says Greg Garson, owner of Fionn MacCool’s Irish Pub at the corner of Adelaide St. W. and University Ave.

Garson wants his guests to enjoy a few drinks and a good meal, “but not at someone else’s expense,” he says.

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