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InSite inflames indoor smoking controversy

By Ada Slivinski, 24 Hours Vancouver

Mark Townsend of the Portland Hotel Society. (CARMINE MARINELLI/24 HOURS)

Mark Townsend of the Portland Hotel Society. (CARMINE MARINELLI/24 HOURS)

B.C. seniors looking to get their smoking room back have found a strange bedfellow in their fight - the group that runs the safe-injection facility InSite in the Downtown Eastside.

The Portland Hotel Society, which has been fighting for an inhalation room at Vancouver's Insite for years, is sympathetic to the plight of the Haro Park retirement home's elderly residents, who've been forced out on a street-side bench to have a cigarette after their smoking room was shut down last month.

The move was in compliance with the strict non-smoking policy of the Vancouver Coastal Health - the same medical authority that funds InSite.

InSite's director, Mark Townsend, said the prohibitionist policy is too rigid.

"What happens is people get together and they make these grandiose policies and the grandiose policy is no smoking in Vancouver Coastal Health facilities, which makes sense - you don't want to see workers getting sick, you don't want to see people getting cancer for no reason," he said. "But at the same time, you have to have a bit of good old fashioned common sense on these things.

"It doesn't make any sense when you're chasing seniors out into the rain or the cold, or off the grass and saying you can't smoke in your home."

For years, Townsend has been fighting for an inhalation room at InSite, where crack addicts would be provided with clean pipes and a ventilated space in which to smoke.

VCH says they'd consider an inhalation room if there was sufficient evidence proving it was medically beneficial. However, they remain firmly against a smoking room at Haro Park.

That doesn't stack up for Michael Vonn from the BC Civil Liberties Association, who said VCH tells people they use medical data when it's convenient, such as in the case of InSite. However, at the same time, VCH is ignoring the fact it's possibly bad for the health of the elderly Haro Park residents to quit cold turkey or go out in the winter rain and smoke by the street side.

"Either we are or we aren't making evidence the fundament of our policy," she said.

Vancouver Coastal Health officials noted it wasn't actually pushing for an inhalation room, and added that the Portland Hotel Society is an advocacy group that will always be pushing for more radical initiatives.

Suzanne Del Buey, a Haro Park resident whose 91-year-old husband smokes, says Townsend's support just goes to show how "ridiculous" the policies at Vancouver Coastal Health are.