Armrest ashtrays are welded shut, “no smoking” signs hang from every office building and now sports venues refuse to include smoking areas. A smoker’s world looks a lot different than it did in the ’70s. We’re going in an irreversible direction and when it comes to tobacco, it may be the beginning of the end.
As anyone over the age of 30 will tell you, smoking has taken severe beatings in the form of new legislation and scientific findings over the last decade — which would’ve been enough to cripple and ban most other habits. But smoking has prevailed through these challenges and the Alberta government is now looking for strategies to put the final nail in the coffin for smokers.
At the front lines of the battle with the government are tobacco shops from all over the province. Jason Holt is the owner of Calgary-based Epicure Cigars & Pipes, a tobacco store hidden away in the basement of an office building on Eighth Avenue. The subtle location doesn’t do justice to its exquisite interior. The shop has an impressive collection of pipes and blended tobacco lining the back wall, but the real beauty of the shop is seen when sliding glass doors open to reveal a cigar lounge lined with leather couches, flat screen TVs, a bar and thick glass ashtrays on every table.
It was in this lounge Holt and I sat on tall black bar stools, my recorder in the middle of the round table separating us. As the only two people in the lounge, it seemed spacious and almost hauntingly beautiful. Holt held a thick brown cigar to his lips, filled the room with a toxic haze and looked me over.
“If this were even half a generation ago, you’d be smoking a cigarette with me right now,” he says.
As a 22-year-old male who has never touched a cigarette in his life, I definitely would have been a rarity in my birth year of 1994, when the smoking population in Canada exceeded 7 million people. As of 2014, that number dropped to 5.4 million, making non-smokers like myself much easier to find. Non-smokers no longer have to submit to the desires of those who choose to inhale hot, thick, clouds of nicotine.
After more than 30 years of operating his tobacco shop, Holt has come to the conclusion, “[the government is] winning the battle.” Through new policies such as the no re-entry for smokers at Rogers Place arena in Edmonton and legislation in the form of the Tobacco Reduction Act of 2008.
The Tobacco Reduction Act of 2008:
“Prohibits smoking in all public workplaces;”
“Bans retail displays, advertising and promotion of tobacco products; and”
“Prohibits the sale of tobacco products from all health-care facilities, public post-secondary campuses, pharmacies and stores that contain a pharmacy.”
President of Cheap Smokes & Cigars Franchise, Jeff Lawrence, doesn’t view these new legal measures as a win.
“The Alberta government is allowing a black market of tobacco to thrive because they keep hammering this minority of smokers with taxes and new policies,” says Lawrence.
Reports like one by the Western Convenience Store Association in 2016 exemplify what Lawrence is referring too. The study reveals the average rate of illegal tobacco use in Alberta increased from 9.8 per cent in 2015 to 12.3 per cent in 2016.
Lawrence says not all tobacco shops are bad and his chain of Cheap Smokes & Cigars stores were implemented in 2009 to help both the smoking and non-smoking population.
"We created a happy place for smokers, where we didn’t sell anything but cigarettes, therefore we could be a plus-18 store and make sure that there were no kids coming in here,” explains Lawrence.
“Our goal with creating an atmosphere like this wasn’t to try and create any new smokers, it was to treat adults who choose to smoke a legal product with more respect. By doing this, we expected to gain market share from other business like convenience stores which allow youth into them for all kinds of other products.."
It’s indisputable the government has made significant steps in reducing the amount of smokers in Alberta. However there are still obstacles to overcome on the path to a smoke-free province.
One obstacle comes in the form of new smoking methods such as e-cigarettes. While there is much debate over the effects and severity of e-cigarettes, many experts say they have a direct cause-and-effect relationship with tobacco smokers.
Holt explains that he sees e-cigarettes as a “last ditch effort for smoking, with no future to it,” while some, like Alberta Zone Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Brent Friesen, sees e-cigarettes as a troubling issue that needs to be tackled by the government.
“The surveys that have been done are showing an increasing use of e-cigarettes particularly among youth. If we look at Alberta for 2014 to 15, the rate of ever having tried e-cigarettes is 23 per cent,” says Friesen.
“If you look at the students who say they’ve never used this cigarette alternative and compare them to students who report having tried it, those that report having tried e-cigarettes are more likely to report also smoking cigarettes.”
Friesen says this tendency to use both smoking products has drawn concern that youth exposed to e-cigarettes may be at a higher risk for picking up smoking later on.
In 2015, Calgary banned the use of e-cigarettes in all places where tobacco cigarettes are prohibited. Other groups within Alberta have embraced the e-cigarette, such as Cheap Smokes & Cigars, which have sections of their stores dedicated to vape products. It’s hard to deny the popularity of e-cigarettes is growing substantially in Alberta. A 2015 report by the Centre for Population Health Impact indicates 11 per cent of Canadians over the age of 15 have ever tried e-cigarettes. To see evidence of this, all you have to do is walk into a back alley behind the nearest restaurant where weary young adults splattered in fresh food stains will be gathered together by the dumpster taking deep puffs from long silver sticks in place of cigarettes.
And this trend of e-cigarettes seemingly extends beyond restaurants, to oil rigs, grocery stores and casinos.
But in rural Alberta, smoking culture is seemingly unchanged by e-cigarettes, as tobacco products run rampant in the hands of both adults and teenagers alike. In my hometown of Carbon, Alberta, nearly everyone in high school smoked. As a non-smoker, it seemed like it almost wasn’t an option, or at the very least, a peculiar one.
The appeal of cigarette smoking as a social stimulant is matched only by its ability to pass time and relieve stress. This enticing combination drew in half of my graduating class, far above the provincial average of 9.9 per cent in 2012.
Katie Cannings, a mother of one from Carbon and personal lifelong friend, made her debut into the smoking population with a cigar at 17. She soon moved onto cigarettes and while her smoking habit ranged from one cigarette every couple days to half a pack a day, the only constant in Cannings life was the presence of tobacco.
“Your teens are a stressful time in your life, and smoking was my way to try and deal with it,” says Cannings. At the age of 20, she became pregnant and the news was the push she needed to finally put down cigarettes. But the break from her destructive cycle didn’t last, and after being smoke-free for almost an entire year, Cannings was driven back into the arms of her deadly companion.
Cannings has nothing but hatred towards smoking and wants to stop. But until the stress levels in her life ease up, she fears the day where she ditches tobacco for good, may never come.
When it comes to the future of smoking in Alberta, Friesen says the provincial and federal government are planning to revisit the idea of increasing taxes on tobacco products to curb the percentage of new smokers, amongst other options.
“We’ve talked about licensing and restricting the number of tobacco retailers, to bring it down from the current broad availability,” Friesen says. “The other movement that we’re seeing happening in the United States is the raising of the legal age to be able to purchase tobacco products from 18 or 19 to 21-years-old. Increasing the legal age to purchase or possess tobacco to 21 significantly reduces the use of tobacco among the 17 and 18-year-olds due to restricted access to these products.”
These options, in addition to projects like the newly launched Academy for Tobacco Prevention, will attempt to reach the government’s goal of bringing the province’s smoking population down to less than five per cent by 2035.
It may seem like an ambitious goal but even tobacconists like Holt view a nearly-tobacco free society as “being very probable.”
- By Brandon Tucker