Any plans for a wholesale ban on smoking in public places were quashed Sunday when Premier Ralph Klein said he's against meddling in business, and enforcement would be a headache.
"I don't have a problem with the taxes," Klein told a gathering of about 1,200 people at the Progressive Conservatives' annual general meeting in Edmonton, referring to recent cigarette tax hikes of $2.25 a pack.
"Where I do have a problem is imposing on businesses the compulsory component of saying: there's no smoking anywhere the public goes.
"I think of the St. Louis hotel, or (Edmonton's) Transit hotel, or any hotel in rural Alberta. You get these old-timers in having a beer and smoking.
"What are you going to do, have a whole bunch of smoking cops saying 'come on old-timer, put the smoke out?' I do see some great difficulties."
Klein noted Health Minister Gary Mar still has to bring to cabinet and a full meeting of Tory MLAs all the details of his comprehensive plan to cut smoking rates.
Mar unveiled the strategy Friday, which includes $8.7 million for stop-smoking programs and education, with another $3 million to deal with smuggling and to make sure new taxes are collected.
The initiative also provides for fines of up to $100 for anyone under 18 years of age caught with cigarettes. Other recommendations from a government report on tobacco reduction will also be considered, including a blanket ban on smoking in public places -- and that's what got the premier talking.
Klein said he favours restaurants being required to have separately ventilated smoking areas, rather than an outright ban on lighting up.
Mar has said a blanket ban in all public places might be too far reaching, but a prohibition on smoking where kids are is a reasonable consideration. He reiterated that Sunday, saying he didn't feel his plans were undermined by the premier.
Mar hinted a compromise was in the offing -- existing food and drink establishments which permit smoking may be allowed to continue, but new enterprises that spring up after legislation may be subject to more stringent controls.
"I think what the premier is talking about is a real balance of interests," said Mar. "He recognizes that if individual businesses choose to be smoking businesses, maybe there should be some type of grandfathering clause."
Mar said legislation would be readied over the next few months, drawing on the experience of other provinces in a bid to get a law that would be accepted by Albertans, and withhold any court challenge.
Les Hagen, head of the anti-smoking lobby Action on Smoking on Health, said his group will continue to push for a wholesale ban, with some concessions.
"As a minimum, we would force a complete ban on smoking in public areas and public establishments where children are," said Hagen, citing restaurants and shopping malls as an example. "In workplaces, and perhaps in bars, we don't have a problem with proprietors establishing a completely separate ventilated area" for smokers.
Also Sunday, Klein said he was mildly surprised at the grief he's taking over his government's decision to disband the community lottery board. The board doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in lottery money to community and non-profit groups since its inception in the mid 1990s.
The government scrapped the board in Tuesday's budget, saving $51 million.
Klein said the decision wasn't only monetary -- there was some duplication between it and the community facility enhancement grants program, which also hands out money.
Klein said that program has been topped up.
Klein also said part of the problem that now exists between his government and teachers is that neither side fully understands the demands and responsibilities of the other.
He agreed with a suggestion from the floor of the convention, that MLAs be paired with teachers in a sort of "take a teacher/MLA to work" day.
Learning Minister Lyle Oberg said he'd welcome an Alberta Teachers' Association member tagging along with him.
"I think the whole concept is for each other to appreciate what the other one does," said Oberg. "I think teachers work very hard, but they have to understand MLAs work extremely hard as well."
The premier again warned anyone interested in his job to back off. Klein said he'll run again in the next election, expected in 2005, if his mental and physical health allow it, and if he has the support of the party.
"I'm around for a long, long time," he told delegates. "To the tire kickers out there, cool your heels.
"People come to me with names, this person is thinking about running and that person is thinking about running," Klein later told reporters.
"But it makes it difficult to lead a party and to lead a government and to hold caucus together when there are people out there, if there are, who are saying, 'Maybe he's going to quit this year or maybe next year and I want to position myself to be there when he does.' "