Smoke Signals

June 2, 2008

I’m ready. Pockets bristling with Dunhills, bandoleer slotted with Cohibas, and equipped with all manner of lighters, matches, and holders, I’m planning to mark this day—March 31, 2008—in a haze of glory, smoking like it’s going out of style. Because it is.

In accordance with new regulations giving the City of Vancouver even bigger muscles than the rest of newly clear-skied B.C., March 31 is my last chance to light up in such “indoor public places” as taxis, offices, and…cigar clubs? Am I’m deciphering the bafflegab? “A person must not smoke in a building, except in enclosed premises that are not private clubs or smoking clubs, a purpose of which is to allow patrons, customers, or other persons to smoke.” Forgetting that Vancouver doesn’t really do momentous—remember the “Don’t even think about coming downtown” buzz kill of New Year’s 2000?—I make a vow: to be in the thick of things for the last stinky hurrah.

I’ve already seen cigarette racks in stores boarded with the sad grey government shutters of shame. By mid-afternoon I’m noticing desolate patios. Small clusters of confused, downtrodden puffers dither about on sidewalks, trying to figure out where they’re supposed to stand. They don’t look angry; like buffaloes and roller-boogiers, they wear expressions that speak of grappling with a new, inarguable reality: this isn’t working anymore. A crucial phase in Vancouver’s homogenization is well under way.

This isn’t the city’s first attempt to clear the air. Back in 2003, bar owners and reprobates alike were banging bar tops, screeching at the top of their perforated lungs that they wouldn’t butt out without a fight. Through loopholes of patios and quickly devised, expensively ventilated smoking rooms, many owners did manage to deke through the bureaucratic obstacle course, but it was only forestalling the inevitable. Five years later, here we are, sunk from a scream to a whisper. Is it deference to Olympic fever? Recognition that we need to walk tall, with minty-fresh breath and neatly trimmed nose hairs, when we become “world class?” Or is it a new era? City health inspector Domenic Losito says that smoking’s day is done (and presumably its night, too), and he’s not wrong: B.C. has the lowest smoking rate in the country, one that has seen a seven-percent drop in a decade.

My first den of iniquity is City Cigar on West Sixth, but it’s as vacant as it is fragrant. Where is everyone? I ask manager Lianne Ashley about the ban, and her words are tinged with outrage. Who can blame her? People don’t go to a cigar lounge for food, drink, and clean mountain air, so who’s being protected? And who punished? With the requirement that customers respect a clear-air cordon of six metres from any building, let’s say a patron, having successfully scored a Montecristo, obediently strides out the door, measuring tape in hand, only to wind up atop the yellow line down the centre of the road. Whoops—his neatly contained hobby has turned deadly, threatening not just him but the drive-home masses. Whose hands are bloody now?

My next stop is a downtown hookah lounge. I fire up immediately. The rush hits me, followed by a familiar jab of guilt (I’m supposedly on the wagon) until I discover that I’m not even smoking tobacco. Apparently, that was an apple rush. Our overlords don’t like them apples either. As far as they’re concerned, smoke is smoke. Or, in bureaucratese: “ ‘Smoke’ or ‘smoking’ means to inhale, exhale, burn, or carry a lighted cigarette, cigar, pipe, hookah pipe, or other lighted smoking equipment that burns tobacco or other weed or substance.” Should you ever get Tasered indoors, try not to smoulder.

Onward and downward to Pat’s Pub and its notorious smoking room. You don’t even have to spark up in this Downtown Eastside mainstay; you get half a pack’s worth of nicotine just walking in. But not tonight. Zilch. A waitress says the kibosh came out of nowhere. Word got around, she says, and the word was fines—up to $2,000 per person. I’ve misconstrued the governmentspeak; the ban started at midnight. A poke into a rancid dive down Hastings confirms it, and if there’s no smoking going on in these hellholes, then it’s all over. April Fool’s Day came early this year.

City Cigar’s Ashley sees a different joke in all this; city hall cracks down on a legal activity while helping fund illegal ones—like injection drug use.

Maybe smokers just aren’t political enough. If smoking is an addiction, where are the safe inhalation sites? I can picture the place: a comfortable little haven for nic-fitters, with some snacks, a dartboard maybe, some beer. Strikes me as ideal, but “safe inhalation site” sounds kind of clinical.

Wait, I’ve got an idea—how about “bar”?

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