National Non-Smoking Week draws to a close Saturday, but in Hamilton and across the province, efforts to reduce the number of smokers is an issue tackled 365 days of the year.
In 2006, the provincial government passed the Smoke Free Ontario Act which, along with outlawing smoking in restaurants and bars, set out several guidelines to help reach a goal of having the lowest smoking rates in the country — and maybe even North America.
In Hamilton, the multipronged efforts have seen a steady decline in the number of smokers, according to Kevin McDonald, manager at Hamilton Public Health Services. Through prevention, protection and cessation efforts, Hamilton has seen smoking rates among adults over the age of 15 drop from 27 per cent to 19.5 per cent in 10 years.
"We're seeing fairly significant declines, so we're encouraged," McDonald said. But he added that the decline seems to have hit a wall in recent years.
"The last few years, we've kind of seen a flatline. We're getting to a really crucial point where there is a hardening group of long-time smokers who are harder to reach."
Hamilton's smoking rate has stayed steady since 2009, and though 19.5 per cent puts Hamilton at the 10th lowest rate out of 36 public health units in the province, it's a long way from Ontario's goal of a single-digit smoking rate.
Still, McDonald was optimistic the ongoing efforts and some new initiatives could help lend momentum to Hamilton's decline in smokers.
Education services for youth have helped curb new smokers, and cessation clinics that offer free access to nicotine replacement therapy have helped those who want to quit succeed. But the best way to tackle more stubborn smokers is through policy, Mcdonald said.
"There's good evidence to suggest that the more prohibitions you place on smoking, the more it stimulates people to decide to quit," he said.
Simply put, if you make it harder for people to smoke, you make it easier for them to quit.
Hamilton has passed by-laws to help spur this effect, such as one passed last May that prohibits smoking within city parks and recreation properties. More could be in the works, McDonald said, like restrictions on smoking in multi-unit dwellings like apartment buildings.
But Hamilton faces unique challenges in reducing smoking rates. A large number of residents living in poverty leads to higher rates of cheap, illegal contraband cigarettes — something public health has no control over.
Considering this issue, McDonald said curbing smoking rates as much as they have should be seen as a success.
"There's always room for improvement, but as a community dealing with fairly acute poverty, [the rates] are an achievement."