TORONTO – Forget huddling on the sidewalk in the cold. Smokers in Toronto's financial district now have a luxurious canopy lounge complete with reclining chairs and TVs to relax in during their smoke breaks -- courtesy of a Canadian tobacco company.
Anxious to get around strict legislation that bans all paid advertisement of tobacco products, Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd. opened the lounge as a way to get its message to smokers directly.
"In our business, the legislative environment is such that we are running out of avenues to communicate with smokers," said the company's director of corporate affairs, Michel Descoteaux.
"Advertisements are not open to us. Legislation is pushing us to communicate on a one-on-one basis. It's an initiative to talk to smokers directly," he said.
And the restrictions are tightening: As of June 1, all Toronto restaurants and coffee shops will be required to be smoke-free or provide an enclosed, vented smoking section that is no larger than 25 percent of the total space.
The restrictions mean it's illegal to put up signs identifying the lounge, so two women at the entrance beckon passers-by to enter and enjoy free refreshments, a range of Canadian newspapers, TVs, comfortable sofas and reclining chairs. There are no free cigarettes, however -- that's against the law.
Instead, staffers circulate nearby, lighting smokers' cigarettes and inviting them to visit the burgundy-canopied lounge in the courtyard of the Toronto-Dominion Center.
In exchange for providing their names, addresses and ages for marketing purposes, smokers also get a chance to win sessions at a luxury spa and a $5,000 cash prize.
Descoteaux bristles at any suggestion the lounge may circumvent the law.
"Being nice to smokers is unethical? We are offering an environment to smokers to enjoy their smoking, otherwise they would be standing on sidewalks. We are making it comfortable for them," he said. "We are not harassing them."
Besides the ban on paid advertisements, cigarette packages are required to carry bold-print messages with such warnings as "smoking can kill you" and "tobacco smoke can harm your children."
In a statement, Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd. complained it had been forced to cease most of its sponsorships, including jazz festivals, concerts, tennis and golf tournaments, equestrian competitions, fashion shows, and automobile, boat and snowmobile racing.
Such "extreme policies" were unlikely to affect smoking patterns, it said, and interfere with the "rights of adults to receive information about the tobacco products they have a right to buy."
The lounge, which opened Monday for a month and may be repeated if it gets a positive response, is already attracting a following.
"I saw this tent and walked in. It beats standing outside," said Anthony, a 42-year-old banker who declined to give his last name.
"I really don't know who's running this. It's just comfortable," he said, relaxing in a black leather recliner as a soft jazz music played in the background.
Lynn, a graphic designer who would also not give her last name, said the lounge was designed "to keep people smoking, keep selling those tobacco products. I know I should quit smoking."
"Smoking is frowned upon. It's not healthy, it's a stigma. It's horrible standing outside in the cold to smoke; you're a pariah, you're a social outcast," she said.
Lisa Ryan, 31, smokes 15 cigarettes a day and says she wants to quit. But for now, she wants to enjoy her smoke.
"It's just a nice day. It's nice to sit under a canopy. It's definitely unusual to set up a place for smokers. Generally there are not many places to smoke," said Ryan.