Munter: What the debates over COVID vaccines and public smoking have in common

It’s less about the virus and more about balancing individual and collective interests

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When the City of Ottawa banned smoking 20 years ago this month, the contentious debate wasn’t really about smoking, just as today’s debate on vaccination isn’t truly about vaccines.


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In 2001, Ottawa was the first major Canadian city to successfully ban smoking in public places and workplaces. It was ground-breaking and came five years after Toronto had to repeal similar regulations in the face of public outrage.

I learned quickly, as chair of the city’s health committee, that the debate was less about tobacco and more about competing rights: the freedom from smoke versus the freedom to smoke.

Ottawa’s flashpoint came when a non-smoking woman who spent her adult life working in smoky restaurants was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The harms of second-hand smoke were known, but denied by tobacco companies and resisted by government.

Fast-forward to today’s debate about vaccination. A small, but vocal, minority insist they have the right to risk contracting a highly infectious virus that they do not fear. Fine. They then go on to suggest that they have the right to impose their gamble on everyone else by mixing with others without limitation. One prominent anti-vaxxer tweeted that if people were so worried about contracting COVID, they should just stay home.


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It’s the equivalent of insisting that a server in a restaurant should literally suck it up. Or that smoking at one’s office desk isn’t anybody else’s business.

Except, of course, it takes a long time for the health effects of second-hand smoke to manifest. It’s a matter of days for COVID.

I was naive heading into Ottawa’s great smoking debate, thinking it would be about health policy. I thought the overwhelming facts about environmental tobacco smoke would be evident.

Then, just as now, misinformation was rampant. There were lots of efforts to downplay or deny the impacts of tobacco, just as there is much effort today to deny the severity of COVID or the effectiveness of masks, distancing and vaccines.

The intensity of emotion, on both sides, came from deeply held beliefs about community, what we owe each other, the role of government and what freedom means. And while we have a pretty broad consensus about those things, now, as then, it’s not unanimous. Emotions run deep.


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Interestingly, those who felt most intensely often came to their view out of addiction to ideology, not cigarettes.  Polls of smokers showed a majority wanted to quit and many saw the by-law as reinforcement for that goal.

The number of calls, emails and random interactions that started with “I don’t smoke but…” was striking. For them, the by-law was about government over-reach.

Of course, there are also some differences in today’s debate — the most notable being the absence of social media back then. Just as tobacco companies had a financial incentive to promote disinformation, so does Facebook, but its reach is much greater and its means more sophisticated.

And the vitriol of the 2001 debate now feels like child’s play compared to the dismal viciousness on daily display in social media. No one is spared, not even kids who are 12 years old and just excited to go back to school or play with their friends.

I remember saying, at the time, that we’d all look back one day and wonder what the fuss was about. But first we had to have the fuss and it was important to do so. This is about values and finding the right balance between the interests of the individual and those of the community as a whole.

I feel the same way today.

Alex Munter is president and CEO of CHEO, the national capital’s pediatric health centre.



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