Smoking through the streets of Wellington

Something I’ve noticed, having been on a lot of trips with a tramping club in a short space of time, is that the people who go on such trips are almost never smokers. The only time I actually remember being on a trip with someone who smoked was the trip to Rangiwahia. The club rated it an Easy trip, and on that occasion we reached the night’s destination within two hours. The smokers stayed behind in the sun at the hut while the rest of us went further up the hill into the snow after lunch, for an afternoon walk.

Walking around town is quite the opposite. There are people smoking everywhere. Perhaps it’s just more obvious since the Smoke-free Environments Amendment Act was passed in 2003, making it a legal requirement that all workplaces be smoke-free as of December 2004. Naturally this has driven people who like to smoke out into the streets. It probably also means that people’s smoking tends to be more concentrated during the times when they’ll be outside for other reasons, such as during their lunch breaks, and before and after work. These tend to co-incide with the times that everyone else is outside, and as someone who walks around streets a lot, I’ve found the apparently lessened quality of the outdoor air to be off-putting.

For one thing, it’s quite difficult to walk along a crowded street without at least one person blowing stale smoke, at regular intervals, into the faces of people walking up to 15 metres behind. In the past few years, I’ve trained myself to get to the up-wind side of someone who’s smoking along the street. Other tricks have been to cross the road, to synchronise my breathing so as to take a deep breath just as the person in front is about to take a puff from their cigarette, or occasionally to just push ahead of them and hope there’s not another person smoking up ahead. It’s not always possible during peak times when the streets are very crowded, however. A while ago I might have guessed that vehicle emissions would be at least as annoying as cigarette smoke, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. I suppose that over the years, car manufacturers have been regulated into producing engines that convert petroleum into energy more efficiently, whereas tobacco companies have not been regulated into producing cigarettes that pump the toxins into their subject more efficiently. Consequently, the toxins just go everywhere, and that’s what second hand smoke is.

The smoke-free legislation also means that walking through many of the restaurant districts in the city centre, on an otherwise nice afternoon or evening, has become a worse experience than it used to be. Restaurants have been required to push all of their smoking patrons to tables outside, and on any evening when it’s worth sitting outside, the smoke lingers. (So much for smoke-free workplaces for the waiting staff, which was one of the champion claims of the legislation. To be fair, it’s probably much more smoke-free than it used to be.) This lingering effect is not just restricted to restaurants, either. Virtually any entranceway to an office block is likely to have quite stagnant air for most of the day, simply because the people who work inside have to come outside and find somewhere sheltered to have a smoke.

Yesterday, on unrelated occasions during the day, I noticed at least four people throwing their used cigarette butts away onto the footpath. Usually they weren’t completely out. A couple of these people took it upon themselves to trample their cigarette from an orange tube of glowing embers into a flattened powdery smoking mess, just to make sure it wouldn’t set the pavement on fire. They didn’t pick it up and put it in a rubbish bin afterwards, and I’m not sure if I ever remember having seen anyone do that. These were people who I doubt would ever consider littering with any other kind of rubbish, and most of them probably wouldn’t leave old cigarette butts lying on paths around their own property at home. A 15 minute walk around town towards the end of a typical day will easily find hundreds or thousands of old cigarette butts that have been disposed of on the footpath or in the gutter in this way, all from that day.

Wellington’s street-cleaning staff and sweeping machines will collect the majority of the gunk when they go through in the early morning, but I still find it disturbing that it’s tolerated and socially acceptable for people to chuck their cigarettes into the gutter, or onto the footpath, in the first place. One of my theories, which I don’t know how to test reliably, is that much of the permanent chewing-gum-like goo that builds up in clumps on footpaths is a direct result of the chemicals that get trampled and rubbed into the surface with the bottom of people’s shoes. The street-cleaners wouldn’t get it all, and what’s left possibly clumps together on the surface until such time until the footpath is next dug up and completely replaced with a new seal. If anyone can comment on this theory with more authority, I’d love to hear about it.

I can fully appreciate why people do this, even if I don’t agree with it. Realistically, there doesn’t seem to be much choice. In Wellington, at least, there doesn’t seem to be much that can be done with an old cigarette butt. The streets aren’t full of ash trays (perhaps they should be), and binning a used cigarette doesn’t seem very safe. In fact, on two successive days this week, I’ve walked past flaming rubbish bins; both were probably an unfortunate consequence of someone trying to be a tidy kiwi with their cigarette.

I’m ranting at this point, anyway. It’s not my place to criticise people who either choose to smoke or who are simply addicted to it, and I hope this doesn’t come across as if I am. On the other hand, I do think there are some issues that could be addressed more effectively with regard to making it easier for people to smoke without having as many negative effects on everything around them.

In other news, I don’t have any more trips planned until mid-January. Stacey and I are heading up to Taranaki again this Christmas. It seems hard to believe that it was less than a year ago that I ended up with 8 weeks of knee damage from gallivanting around Egmont.

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