Second-hand smoke and second-hand Covid

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
27 August, 2021

As the anniversary of the first Covid lockdown approached, the Ministry of Health had some time on its hands.   

It had issued a new consultation paper and was looking for feedback.   

The Ministry wasn’t seeking submissions about appropriate Covid testing systems that could provide rapid results in any new outbreak.  

Officials had already decided that they really were not interested.   

And it wasn’t even about how MIQ practice might need to change if a more contagious Covid strain  emerged.   

The Ministry instead wanted advice on outdoor smoking areas at bars and restaurants. Inadequate ventilation might expose people to second-hand smoke. When smoking is prohibited indoors, what counts as outdoors?  

The options provide an interesting contrast to MIQ exercise areas.   

The Ministry’s preferred option for outdoor smoking areas considered anything with even a temporary roof to be part of the Great Indoors. A picnic table umbrella might even trigger the indoor smoking ban. Another option proposed that if the roof and walls covered  more than half of the perimeter, it should be deemed to be indoors.   

Fast forward five months to the current Covid outbreak.   

A walkway beside the outdoor exercise area at Auckland’s downtown Crowne Plaza MIQ facility is being investigated as the source. Newsroom identified the problem a month ago. The outdoor exercise area is anything but. The hotel’s former taxi loop, a roofed long and narrow driveway, had been walled off on the street side. A public walkway is separated from the exercise area by a partial Perspex wall.   

Had the Crowne Plaza instead proposed that exercise area as an outdoor smoking area for its bar, it almost certainly would have failed under either of the Ministry’s proposed standards. It would have been considered as being indoors. It has a roof. It is enclosed, currently, on two sides.  

Second-hand smoke is not good for you, but it takes a lot of exposure to cause lung cancer. It only takes fleeting exposure to second-hand Covid to really ruin your day. Nevertheless, the site that would not pass muster as an outdoor smoking area, under the Ministry’s proposed standard, was considered safe enough for an MIQ exercise area. 

As we enjoy New Zealand’s second nationwide lockdown, let us hope the Ministry of Health dedicates at least as much attention to the risks of second-hand Covid as it does to the risks of second-hand smoke.  

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