We're outside, playing basketball in our tiny backyard. Or it's table-tennis time. Perhaps we're sharing a meal on a warm night. Or maybe I'm just hanging out the washing when it happens. From over the fence, the acrid waft of smoke drifts, and that's it: dinner's off, the game is over, the washing is abandoned, the kids are packed off inside. My cough begins almost immediately. Shut the windows and bolt the doors.
We're feeling the inner-city pressure. Our neighbours smoke. All. The. Time. It's been four years since we could eat a meal outside. Our children have to stop playing and come in when the neighbours light up, which seems to be every five minutes. If we open the bedroom windows, the smoke drifts straight in and stays.
Neighbours, your smoking is harming us! Our washing smells of smoke, the side of the house smells like a huge ashtray. I recently found myself muttering "Kill yourselves, but stop killing us!" as I fled indoors.
The Andrews government is grappling with how to implement the "confusing" ban on smoking in outdoor dining areas. Can state and local governments really legislate for clean air and public health, when it means regulating personal choices?
Quit says there are "250 chemicals in secondhand smoke that are known to be toxic, including more than 50 that are known to cause cancer". It gets worse: "Compared to mainstream smoke, sidestream smoke contains greater amounts of ammonia, acrolein, carbon monoxide, nicotine and a number of cancer causing chemicals, per cigarette."
Of course people have the right to choose to smoke, but there is no denying that the choice to smoke harms others – and that's where it becomes a public health issue. The World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control says that secondhand smoke causes death, disease and disability, and calls for countries to implement strategies to protect citizens. The Australian Government Institute of Health and Welfare lists several major health problems associated with passive smoking, including "asthma in children, SIDS, lower respiratory tract infections, lung cancer and coronary heart disease".
These days, less than 13 per cent of adults in Victoria smoke. Yet, according to Quitline, smoking is "the leading cause of preventable death". Surely there is a strong case for government action on behalf of the community, when the health risks are so clear.
I have a memory of my dad from when we were kids. He would stand on the concrete back verandah in his Y-front cotton jocks, smoking Marlboro after Marlboro. Sometimes we would steal his cigarettes and burn one with the focused heat of a magnifying glass. I can hardly try this trick with our neighbours though, can I? While local councils have a role in investigating "nuisances" such as smoke infiltration from neighbouring properties, it's not ideal for an issue like this to end up in the Magistrates Court.
So, back to my backyard. The evidence is in. Neighbours, your smoking is harming us! We can no longer spend time in our backyard. My gardening is restricted to quick dashes to the herb box. Our spring and summer dinners outside have been abandoned long ago, hanging out the washing is a risky respiratory business and sitting in the sun has become mostly impossible.
Until we see legislative changes, all we can ask is: "Please butt out, next door dudes. For your own health and for that of your highly irritated, coughing neighbours."
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