The smells of summer

Issue: BCMJ, Vol. 59, No. 7, September 2017, page(s) 344-345 Editorials
David R. Richardson, MD

“Hey neighbor, just going to spread some carcinogens around. Hope that’s okay, but it’s not like you can stop me anyway.”

Like many of us, I love summer evenings spent lounging on my deck, but I live in a condominium complex and am unfortunately surrounded by like-minded smokers. Now, I have no problem with people choosing to smoke (well, a little, because it is stupid and bad for you), but their smoke blows onto my balcony and into my unit. I find the smell disgusting and wonder how they would feel if I kept a pile of manure outside with a fan set to blow the smell in their direction?

Regardless of the odor, I am concerned about the effects of secondhand smoke. According to the National Cancer Institute (and they are a pretty big deal) there is no safe level of secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke contains at least 250 harmful chemicals of which 69 have been identified as carcinogens. In addition, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US National Toxicology Program, the US Surgeon General, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (all big deals) have classified secondhand smoke as a known human carcinogen (seems pretty definitive). It is estimated that approximately 3000 lung cancer deaths occur each year among adult nonsmokers in the United States as a result of exposure to secondhand smoke, and that living with a smoker increases a nonsmoker’s chances of developing lung cancer by 20% to 30%. Health Canada also states that about 800 Canadians die each year of cancers and vascular disease secondary to secondhand smoke. 

So why is it okay for residents to smoke on their balconies? I can’t imagine if I were spraying pesticide around that it would be allowed. In British Columbia, most strata corporations don’t allow smoking on common property, but balconies are considered limited common property and are therefore exempt. I would have to prove that my exposure to smoke is a nuisance or a hazard, which is somewhat subjective (not to me). Strata corporations can adopt stricter nonsmoking bylaws but these would have to be passed by a three-quarters majority vote, which then could be legally challenged by smokers as nonconstitutional and infringing on their rights. Personally, I think smokers should be encouraged to close their doors and shut their windows, thereby increasing their smoke inhalation. This could potentially save them money as fewer cigarettes would be required for the same exposure.   

While I am on a rant I might as well include smoking outside in general. I am often forced to walk through a cloud of cigarette smoke as I navigate city streets. Thankfully secondhand smoke exposure has reduced dramatically during my lifetime. As a child I remember going to sporting events where the stadium was filled with cigarette smoke or returning from public functions where my clothes reeked. Other carpool parents would smoke away as we sat trapped in the back seat with all the windows closed. Thankfully my parents are nonsmokers, but their houseguests often smoked and it would have been considered rude to ask them to refrain. We have come a long way, but the time has come for smoking to be restricted to closed spaces with no allowance for exposure to others.

One final thought: with next year’s legalization of marijuana will I now have to inhale cannabis? As an upside, maybe I will mellow out and not rant so much.