By Trevor Busch
Taber Police Service is pressuring the police commission to endorse further restrictions on the public use of tobacco and e-cigarettes in the community.
Prepared by the TPS, the Community Standards Bylaw – Proposed Amendments E-Cigarettes and Tobacco Use Report came as a result of school resource officer Cst. Dave Gyepesi being “approached by stakeholders in our community to address the need for some controls around public e-cigarette and tobacco use in the community.”
“Since the mass introduction of vaping products or e-cigarettes into the market approximately 10 years ago, an influx of product use has been seen… this is a health concern for the youth in our community,” reads an excerpt from Gyepesi’s report, which was presented to the Taber Municipal Police Commission for discussion at their March 21 regular meeting. “With my position as school resource officer, I have noticed an increase in the usage and seizure of e-cigarette products in the two school divisions that are located in Taber.”
According to a survey conducted recently by the University of Waterloo, 33 per cent of students at W.R. Myers High School reported having tried e-cigarettes.
“This is concerning, as although vaping is marketed as a smoking cessation product, the medical research is not clear and concise enough to rule out medical effects,” said Gyepesi in his report. “Further to this, it is likely that youth that are involved in using these products will try or have used other substances or tobacco products.”
The report details several communities in Alberta that have implemented similar bylaws, including Calgary, Red Deer, Cold Lake, and Edmonton, with research showing that voluntary compliance is high within those communities.
The first recommended amendment under Part 6 – E-Cigarettes focuses on banning e-cigarette use in public premises and public vehicles, and would institute a setback distance of five metres for device use in the vicinity of entry and exit ways, playgrounds, sports fields and skate parks.
The amendment would allow for use or sampling inside an enclosed premises, “where the primary function of the premises is the sale of electronic smoking devices.”
Proposed additions to Part 6 – Smoking/E-Cigarettes would limit tobacco use and e-cigarettes within sports fields, playgrounds, and skate parks for all ages, and recommends a setback distance of five metres.
According to Gyepesi’s report, “the main objective of this bylaw is to ensure the health and safety of our youth and to provide a framework that the TPS can use to educate the public and to enforce upon the non-compliant the community standards that are expected.”
Gyepesi also pointed out that THC liquids (cannabis) can be used in many of the devices making detection “difficult for the police.”
“The dangers associated with our youth disguising the use of marijuana or nicotine by using e-cigarettes should be addressed so we can proactively support our youth and families in the community.”
Included as an appendix to Gyepesi’s report were twin letters of support for the changes from Supt. Wilco Tymensen of Horizon School Division and board chair Judy Lane of Holy Spirit Catholic School Division.
“Given our commitment to student health and safety, we are strongly in support of a community bylaw that places restrictions on e-cigarettes and vape pens in public places in our communities,” reads a statement in Tymensen’s letter.
In her own letter, Lane was equally concerned with the popular public perception around e-cigarettes.
“It stands to reason that legal and societal expectations for vaping should be more closely aligned with the current treatment of traditional smoking. This would reduce community confusion in knowing if, when and how to intercede in a social situation involving e-cigarettes or vapes.”
Coun. Joe Strojwas, who serves as one of two town council representatives to the commission, questioned why cannabis was not being targeted under the proposed bylaw amendments.
“Cannabis is coming. The Community Standards Bylaw will be up for some discussion in the near future in relation to cannabis,” said TPS Chief Graham Abela. “This is specifically around tobacco and e-cigarettes. It’s a two pronged approach — there will be a report on cannabis coming to you soon — but it’s not this one. The tobacco and e-cigarette use is more around specific areas. The cannabis use is more all-community encompassing. I can tell you right now, as police chiefs in the province of Alberta with regards to cannabis, we want cannabis dealt with the same way as alcohol is dealt with. That means no public use of alcohol, no public use of cannabis. The police chiefs have made that very clear in letters to the public regarding our issues around cannabis.”
Word on the street about the ability of individuals to consume cannabis publicly in a post-legalization environment does not currently align with municipal restrictions.
“What I hear on the street, people assume they’re going to be able to walk around and smoke a joint,” said Strojwas. “They obviously compare it more to tobacco than they do to alcohol. That’s kind of the feedback I’m getting, is they don’t think smoking a joint is infringing on their mental capabilities.”
Commission representative David McLean was terse in his assessment.
“Once we get the laws done, we may have to educate the public.”
Fines for violations of any of the provisions in the recommended amendments range from $150 for a first offence to $500 for a third or subsequent offence.
“The monetary penalties for offences are set at an amount to not only show a deterrence factor but to limit recidivism,” reads Gyepesi’s report.
Donning his public relations cap, Abela assured the commission that the proposed amendments would be far more about public education than a police crackdown on smoking violations.
“The controls that we’re asking be put in place are appropriate. Furthermore, there are several communities in Alberta that are currently doing this — including larger centers and smaller centers. This is more of a messaging, community values statement, than it is an issue around enforcement, punishment, prosecution. Those communities are finding excellent public compliance with the bylaw that’s in place rather than looking at it from the perspective of a police officer on every corner checking to see who’s smoking where. That’s what the message should be here.”
McLean, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure.
“If you put all these things in where they cannot, where is somebody allowed to have a smoke? On top of all that, how are you going to enforce this? If we’re going to recommend this to council, and they’re going to approve and pass it, where are you going to have left for the smokers to have a smoke? I don’t know that I want to be telling people where they can and cannot smoke, effectively taking away most of the places that they can smoke. It smacks of Big Brother to me.”
Abela countered that the amendments do not outrightly prohibit public smoking, but only further limits where it is permitted.
“Let’s be clear, there’s nothing in this bylaw that prohibits people from smoking in a public place. This recommendation would limit people being able to use e-cigarettes or tobacco in public premises or places where youth congregate. Public sidewalks, public roadways, private residence, places where the Tobacco Use Act provincially allows people to smoke would all be permitted.”
Apparently unconvinced, McLean was still on the fence about enhancing smoking restrictions in the community.
“We’ve got to make this clear enough that the general public can understand it and abide by it, and then clear enough that the officers that are trying to enforce it can enforce it. I don’t want our police commission to turn into the smoke police.”
Discussion also focused on potential restrictions on smoking or e-cigarettes in areas outside the community, such as the trail system, the off-leash dog park, and Trout Pond. Abela noted that as these areas are currently outside the corporate limits of the Town of Taber, town bylaws could not be enforced until those properties were officially annexed by the town.
The Town of Taber is currently in the process of annexing roughly 900 acres of town-owned lands in the M.D. of Taber west of Highway 864.
Following discussion, the commission voted unanimously to table the report and its recommendations pending a decision until the April 18 meeting.
Should the amendments be endorsed by the commission and approved by town council, Gyepesi’s report mentioned the possibility of a public awareness campaign, media interviews, public area signage, and a possible warning ticket campaign to get the word out to citizens.
There is currently no provincial legislation regarding the use of e-cigarettes in public places.