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Smoking mad 

The Coast's policy on publishing tobacco ads is simple, legal, and not as harmful as a cloud of second hand smoke.

There is a surprise at the end of Watchmen, the movie. After two-plus hours thick with beatings, war, gore, maiming, mass murder and other on-screen violence---not to mention sex and plenty of naked Dr. Manhattan's big blue Empire State Building---the filmmakers get squeamish about...smoking. Deep in the end credits is a disclaimer assuring audiences that when characters smoked, they smoked in service of the 1985-based story, not because tobacco companies paid for product placement.

Sensitivity to tobacco is not the exclusive purview of the Hollywood elite. Cigarette advertising in The Coast's print edition recently triggered public debate: comments, letters, even a CBC news story. "The Coast has been running ads by cigarette companies for just under two years," said CBC. "Smoke-Free Nova Scotia filed a complaint with Health Canada about ads in 2007 and 2008, but the complaints were dismissed."

The best rules are simple. Here's our guiding policy on ads, first published in this space in 2002: The Coast accepts cigarette advertising because as a newspaper we don't agree with censoring things that are legal yet controversial.

Tobacco companies have spent much of the last 20 years in court, claiming that Canadian laws against advertising threatened their freedom of expression. The latest Supreme Court ruling, from 2007, approved a 1997 law that sharply limits how tobacco can advertise. But ads for cigarette brands (rather than a falsely glamorous smoking "lifestyle") in publications whose readership is at least 85 percent adults (as The Coast's is) are explicitly allowed in the law.

Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, points to smoking in restaurants to illustrate the difference between not breaking the law and doing the right thing. "Restaurants now protect their staff from second-hand smoke because it's the law," she says in a phone call from Smoke-Free's Ottawa office. In hindsight, the ban seems obvious and universally loved, but restaurants weren't going to abandon the smoking status quo until legislation forced them. "Just because it was legal doesn't mean it's a good idea."

The very real dangers of second-hand smoke turn tobacco into a vice that transcends the realm of personal responsibility. Most people don't drive when they're drunk, or necessarily get drunk when they have a drink, whereas every fume from every cigarette can harm both the smoker and anyone else in range. That said, being confronted with a tobacco ad---even on a billboard 10 metres high---doesn't carry the same risks as catching a blast of smoke in the face when you're walking down the street.

It's a distinction Callard hints at when she talks about tobacco in the modern media landscape, naming smoking in movies as well as print advertising among her concerns. Of the wide variety of print media out there, she has especially insightful analysis about a certain niche of youth-oriented publications. "Their whole business model is encouraging young people to take risks with their bodies," she says. You know, covering stuff like drinking, getting tattoos, having sex. "It seems prudish to say they can't take cigarette ads."

Corrections: In the March 3 feature "Saving Brindi," about Francesca Rogier's efforts to get her dog returned from city custody, Lezlie Lowe slipped up when she wrote that Rogier "goes back to court June 5 to answer to the city's second try---new charges stemming from the three old attack incidents." The new charges actually relate only to the third attack incident. The Coast regrets the mistake, and has changed the online version of the story to rectify the error.

Last week's cover was a week premature when it warned your "last chance" to vote in the Best of Food survey was imminent. The survey is open until noon this Monday, April 6, and we're sorry but this really is your last chance.

What do you think: cig ads or no? Give a shout to

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