QUEBEC — Quebec’s tobacco police begin working in earnest tonight, enforcing the ban on smoking in public places that took effect at midnight.
They’ll work incognito, like spies, in bars throughout the province where the government believes recalcitrant owners will refuse to enforce the ban.
The more than 75 inspector-agents have been ordered to monitor employees and bar owners. Those who do not comply face fines of $400 for a first offence and as much $10,000 for repeat offences. Smokers who refuse to butt out will be fined $50, and penalties can reach as much $600 if they persist.
The tobacco police are on a four-day blitz. The government is keeping their identities secret, refusing all media requests to watch them operate.
«This isn’t a military operation,» Health and Social Services Minister Philippe Couillard said last week. «We believe that over time, changing attitudes will require smokers to refrain from smoking in public.»
Government officials refuse to confirm reports that the number of compliance officers is much higher than what the public has been told.
What is certain is that there will be no grace period, a government spokeswoman said, the regulations — and the fines — will be enforced immediately.
«We conducted a survey of about 1,000 bars, and we believe that about 13 per cent of them will not comply,» said Lise Talbot, who is in charge of the Ministry of Health’s smoking ban. The government estimates that agents will be able to enter at least 6,000 of the province’s 8,000 bars during the blitz. Ms. Talbot said that by the end of the week, they will be able to compile a report on which bars need more stringent enforcement.
A group of bar owners opposed to the law has broken away from the industry’s main lobby group to form a dissident association that will fight the legislation before the courts. L’Union des tenanciers de bars du Québec contends that it has a membership of 1,200 bar owners who say the battle has just begun against what they call a repressive law.
«We are telling our members that they should tell their clients that smoking is not permitted,» the group’s president, Peter Sergakis, said in a telephone interview yesterday. «If people are seen smoking in their establishment, then employees will issue a warning. But we will not kick anyone out of our bars nor will we call in the inspectors.»
Mr. Sergakis said a study conducted in four Ontario municipalities that banned smoking in public places showed that such laws have a devastating effect on bar revenue. The study, conducted by economist Michael Evans, showed that sales dropped significantly after the ban was imposed. In a study released last February, Mr. Evans reported a drop in sales of 24.3 per cent in Kingston, 23.5 per cent in Ottawa, 20.4 per cent in Kitchener and 18.7 per cent in London.
«Here in Quebec, where an even higher percentage of our clientele are smokers, we fear a drop in sales of close to 40 per cent,» Mr. Sergakis said.
While the Quebec government won’t let bar owners designate their premises as smoking or non-smoking, it will allow an unattached, enclosed shed to serve as a smoking area where food and beverages are not served.
It also will allow smoking on covered outdoor patios. Anything resembling a tent, or a patio with retractable walls, cannot be used as an outdoor smoking area. It is estimated that 35 per cent of Quebec bars were equipped to accommodate smokers outdoors.
Dissident bar owners are preparing for a major confrontation.
«I know dozens of bar owners whose livelihood is being threatened by this law. They will fight for their survival. We find nothing logical about a law that bans smoking but still allows tobacco to be sold in stores,» Mr. Sergakis said.
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