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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Tobacco Control Legislation Will Show Stelmach as a New Leader of a Different Government.

The policy development effort of Dave Hancock, Alberta's Minister of Health and Wellness to restrict tobacco in Alberta is entering its final stages.

It has passed the Stelmach government’s Agenda and Priorities Committee and was accepted by the Cabinet Policy Committee. Now it is ready for the full Cabinet and the Caucus consideration and indications are that is happening very soon, as early as next week.

I have followed with interest the Alberta evolution of this initiative for new tobacco control legislation both personally and professionally. It has taken the political process a number of years and a number of tries to get enough politicians to see tobacco control as a health, wellness and a cost saving issue and not only as a personal freedom or choice matter.

The debate around this still persists with some people but there is more mythology than fact. The media likes to play up the personal freedom issue but there are fewer and fewer people who are there to articulate it these days. They are people who are usually characterized as rural and unsophisticated and the interviews are done in bars and pool halls or coffees shops or restaurants.

This framing perpetuates the myth of a rural – urban split in Alberta. It sets up rural people as opposed to tobacco control and city people in support. There is an effort to use the issues as a way to define a different value set as between rural and urban Albertans too. This is totally untrue based on numerous polling results the latest being from Ipsos Reid that showed no significant difference between Albertans in Edmonton and Calgary and the rest of the province.

According to that poll a full 80% of Albertans understand the issues and support a province wide smoking ban. The majority of Alberta politicians know that and also understand Alberta has been lagging behind other provinces on this issue for far too long.

There are 18 Alberta municipalities who have already passed smoking bans. To underscore the myth of a rural-urban split on this, the towns of Stettler, Cardston and Whitecourt adopted bans before the City of Calgary did…and Calgary has the highest education levels of any city in the country. Go figure.

Health is not a rural or an urban issue. Nor is workplace safety in terms of second hand smoke. The diminishing numbers of provincial MLAs who oppose the smoking ban are rural but they are not aligned with the core beliefs and values of the main stream of Albertans – especially on this issue. The majority of Alberta's politicians know this is an idea whose time has come.

Klein as Premier would never let this idea of a province wide smoking ban see the light of day. Stelmach’s new government should ensure this new tobacco control initiative becomes law. It is the right thing to do but it gives him another opportunity as well. This new legislation adds a new health care focus on wellness but it also busts two persistent myths. Firstly, that there is a myth about a rural – urban split in the province on fundamental values. There is not. Secondly, that the Stelmach government is just the same and an extension of the Klein regime. It is not. Tobacco control legislation will go along way to proving both myths to be untrue.