A bylaw is essentially a law that applies locally, and that must be approved by a majority of council members within the limits granted by the province under enabling legislation. The thrust for smoking restrictions began at the municipal level in the early 1970s, with non-smokers beginning to speak up about the right to breathe clean air. History has demonstrated that legislation governing SHS is dynamic, and evolves slowly over time reflecting current knowledge, concern and public opinion.

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Some of Canada’s earliest smoking restrictions were quite modest in scope and were based more on irritation and discomfort than a serious attempt to protect people’s health. In 1976 Ottawa was the first city to pass an antismoking by-law, and the main advocate behind the campaign recalls how she was ridiculed by some people as needing “psychological help.” However, it did not take long for other cities to pass similar by-laws. Toronto followed suit in 1979 with a by-law restricting smoking in several public places, including retail shops, hospitals, elevators, escalators and public gathering areas. A major factor driving the movement to restrict smoking has been the increasing knowledge about the dangers of SHS.

In 2004 when the NSRA began tracking smoke-free bylaws, provinces and territories were only just beginning to pass comprehensive smoke-free legislation. As such, it was important to categorize bylaws as bronze, silver or gold to ascertain the level of protection they offered. Now that all provinces and territories have what is considered gold standard legislation for enclosed workplaces and public places, a gold standard bylaw does not carry the importance it once did. However, regardless of new and stronger provincial and territorial legislation, municipalities continue to amend their bylaws to further protect their citizens from second-hand smoke indoors and out.

New frontiers for smoking prohibitions

Social policy has evolved since 2004. With scientific evidence supporting the extension of smoke-free places to include cars and outdoor environments, together with growing public demand for more protection from SHS, the goal posts have moved. In this respect many of Canada’s municipalities are again leading the way, amending their bylaws to include patios, parks, playgrounds, beaches, and buffer zones around entranceways, operable windows and air intakes. Other pioneering municipalities have included hotel rooms or private vehicles in their bylaws. This trend of increased protection is being observed elsewhere, particularly in the United States, where such things as smoke-free patios, cars, beaches, golf courses, parks, festivals and automated teller machine line-ups are becoming more common. Finally, a new generation of smoke-free bylaws is adopting a broader definition of smoking that goes beyond tobacco to include other weeds or substances. This is likely in response to the emerging trend of hookah pipe smoking being observed in Canada.

Benefits of smoke-free bylaws

Reduction in cigarette consumption and smoking rate

There is good evidence demonstrating that smoking prohibitions help people cut down and even quit smoking.  The majority of smokers would like to quit. Approximately half of all smokers have tried to quit in the past year. Smoke-free bylaws can actually eliminate unconscious smoking behaviour and provide smokers with a sense of control over their consumption of cigarettes. Having to leave an area for a smoke break becomes a conscious act. Once smokers have achieved the discipline required to smoke only at certain times, it can become physiologically easier to quit altogether.


Social behaviour is an important mechanism for social learning. Smoke-free environments create a social milieu that provides protection from social exposure to tobacco products and discourages young people from starting to smoke. Thus, smoke-free bylaws accomplish health protection and prevention at the same time.

Economic considerations

The economic predictions of doom and gloom put forth by opponents are just that: predictions. In many independent scientific studies that look at pre- and post- bylaw revenue receipts, restaurants and bars typically experience a small dip in profits for the first few months of the bylaw, but do not suffer in the long-run as a result of going smoke-free. No properly conducted peer-reviewed study to date has shown a long-run negative economic impact. Some establishments even see a modest increase in revenues after the bylaw comes into force. Benefits of going smoke-free include reduced cleaning costs, less damage to furniture, carpets and equipment, and less risk of fire.

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