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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Eating: The new smoking?
Nov. 24, 2006

Underlining that truth really is stranger than fiction, the human species appears to be destined to eat itself to death. Could Jules Verne ever have imagined a more fantastical end? But here we are, growing fatter with each passing year and taking our children down with us into poor health, early death and depression.
How has this happened? It’s as easy as too many calories and not enough activity, and as complex as globalization, public policy, urban planning and genetics. But whatever the reasons, the problems they’ve created are now abundantly clear, and frightening enough as public-health issues to warrant a response every bit as dramatic as we eventually mustered against smoking.
This much we know: Overweight and obese people get sick more often and die sooner. They’re also more likely to raise kids who are overweight and obese themselves. Much like smoking, kids who grow up with parents whose eating habits and activity levels make them obese are at higher risk of falling into the same patterns themselves. Given the dramatic rise in overweight/obesity rates this past decade, you can see where a trend like that will take us.
A federal report last year on Canadians’ growing weight problems noted that there’s not only more of us putting on weight every year, but fewer of us taking it off.
Obesity Epidemic in Canada found that over a 10-year period, a third of Canadians who started out at “normal” weights eventually moved into the “overweight” category. A quarter of those who had been classified as overweight shifted into the “obese” category. Meanwhile, only 10 per cent of those who started out overweight lost enough weight to move into the “normal” group.
As the report points out, the direct and indirect costs of all that weight gain are tremendous. As a proportion of total health-care expenditure, the current toll of obesity is comparable to where tobacco was 15 years ago: approximately 2.5 per cent. Almost seven million Canadians are overweight, and another 4.5 million are obese.
Just like tobacco, there’s nowhere for costs to go but up. The disease risks increase over time. Smoking-related disease now accounts for nine per cent of our health spending, and obesity costs could very well follow suit.
Like all lifestyle-related problems, we are loathe to acknowledge that it’s us who will have to do something about it. This week, for instance, more than eight in 10 Canadians polled by Ipsos-Reid agreed that doctors should be required by law to tell parents if their child is too fat, as if the blame for our kids growing fat rests with the family GP for holding out on us.
A frank conversation with your doctor is a great start, of course. But getting at the deep roots of this worrying issue will take considerably more effort than that. And it’s all about tough personal choices.
I’m no expert in obesity, but it seems to me that we’ve lost our relationship with food. Once, we were animals, lucky to find enough to eat, let alone too much. We burned a lot of calories just looking for food, and gauged our portion sizes carefully to avoid scarcity.
But we’re clever creatures, and soon figured out how to ensure food was always close at hand. Along the way, we imbued it with emotional resonance, and made it the centrepiece of every major event of our lives. We eat when we’re happy and equally when we’re sad, and for every emotional occasion in between. Hunger - once the only reason for eating - is rapidly losing relevance in these overfed times.
The proliferation of “fast food” has taken us to new levels in the disconnect. An entire industry has developed to provide us with instant access to food around the clock. Driving into any community in the country starts with running a gauntlet of fast-food restaurants on the edge of town. Many pack more calories into a single burger than our ancestors consumed in an entire day.
Fortunately, we’ve been here before. We once smoked the way we now eat, and for similar fuzzy reasons. We know how to effect change, even in the face of widespread public resistance. The strategies we’ll need are neither easy nor short-term, and in the case of obesity will require going up against Big Food as aggressively as was done with the tobacco industry. But if it’s that or be remembered by future historians as a nation destroyed by its eating habits, no effort should be spared.
What can’t be allowed to happen is the normalization of obesity. That’s already happening in U.S. television commercials, which increasingly feature overweight and obese actors. Fashion’s equally absurd focus on the mega-thin also must go, but we have to resist being lulled into any comforting assertion that overweight is the new “just right.”
As any number of disease trends and health indicators make abundantly clear, it isn’t.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The hazards of parking-ticket policy
Nov. 17, 2006

I’ve seen at least six cycles of the Victoria parking-ticket debate since moving here 17 years ago. They all basically unfold the same way.
It usually starts with the City of Victoria musing about collecting more money by increasing the parking fines. Pretty soon, downtown merchants join the debate, questioning the impact on their customers of whatever new parking policy is being discussed at the time.
Eleven years ago, for instance, downtown businesses sounded the alarm about a plan to give commissionaires handheld computers that instantly identified drivers with 10 or more unpaid parking tickets. Such cars caught at expired meters were to be towed.
Businesses feared the vigilance was going to be a problem for some of their customers. But as the habit has been in the past decade or so, the city went ahead anyway.
Back then, the city brought in $2 million a year in ticket revenue. It’s now almost $4 million.
The changes have been particularly aggressive under Mayor Alan Lowe’s time in office, so it’s a bit disingenuous of him to be speculating this week whether vigorous enforcement of the city’s parking laws could be putting people off the downtown.
In Lowe’s time as mayor, the city has doubled the basic parking fine to $15 from $7.50. For those who don’t pay tickets promptly, the fine for leaving a ticket unpaid for two weeks or more jumped in 2004 straight to $35, up from $20. (Two weeks! What other bill collector can demand the equivalent of nearly 3,500 per cent interest?)
Lowe tried to argue in 2000 that ICBC should deny insurance and licences to people if they had outstanding parking tickets. That’s not the kind of guy who comes easily to the concept of backing off on parking enforcement.
Still, a man can have a change of heart. And the city’s parking laws are surely due for a look after more than a decade of steady increases. What impact has that had on the downtown?
The problem is one of conflicting interests. Downtown merchants want people to come downtown to do business, not go home steaming over yet another ticket. The city wants that too, but is also very fond of the $10.4 million that parking revenues generate annually.
The commissionaires just want to do their job, which they do efficiently and well if you think about it from their point of view. Meanwhile, customers just want to park somewhere not too far from their destination, and not have to pay too much for the privilege.
If the goal is to root out errant parkers, we’re doing a great job. For downtown businesses, however, the issue isn’t quite so clear-cut. They want parking space to be available for their customers, but at the same time fear the impact of rigorous parking enforcement on those same customers.
The city likes the money. Who wouldn’t? Downtown parkers are sitting ducks, waiting to be tapped for at least $15 any time they overstay their welcome. Boggle them further with mushrooming fines, mysterious “small car” designations and rules about allowable distances from the curb, and you’ve got yourself a nice source of revenue.
Unfortunately, that clashes significantly with every business strategy around attracting and retaining customers. A business wants things to be easy and pleasant for its customers. Having one leave your store only to find their car ticketed, even towed - it’s not good.
Common wisdom holds that if parking enforcement is too lax, the streets will jam up with downtown workers instead of shoppers. People will choose the streets over the parkades, and suddenly another $4 million revenue source for the city is in jeopardy as well.
Would it happen that way? A pilot year could reveal a great deal, and allow the testing of any number of different strategies. Increased enforcement and higher fines are certainly our tried and true strategies, but that’s not to say they’re the right ones.
Using parking as a cash cow in times when the downtown needs a shot in the arm is quite a gamble. Such a delicate balance can’t be struck simply by asking commissionaires to lighten up. Policies that turn the downtown into a punitive place to visit are directly opposed to business interests in bringing people downtown.
The city’s standard reaction to such concerns over the years has been largely limited to pointing out the number of parking spaces in the downtown, and reminding people to try out a parkade. But for those seeking an easy welcome for their customers, a lecture on parking habits just isn’t on. As every downtown merchant is acutely aware of, the mall is just minutes away.
‘Tis the season - what could be cheerier than Lowe’s promised rethink of parking policies? When the rules hurt more than they help, something’s got to give.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Prostitution and violence
Nov. 10, 2006

The media came calling this week, with a short-lived and whirlwind intensity that I have come to recognize as the hallmark of being “in the news.” The subject at hand was a new report that briefly touched on drug-fuelled parties in the Western Communities luring youth into the violence of the sex trade.
It was the briefest of mentions, really: One paragraph in a 78-page report. But for me, it would be the dominant force that would rule my Tuesday.
As someone who works at an agency that helps sex workers, I would be in high demand that day and the night before for my comments about the rumoured party place. I had little to offer, having never heard of the place. But politicians and others waded in with gasps of disbelief, and demands for police to “do something.”
The story blew in and out of the headlines in little more than a day. With no young, partying Western Communities children stepping forward to fuel more coverage with confessions of being lured into the sex trade at parties, interest in the story faded fast. Given how important the report actually is, that’s a shame.
Researchers from the Justice Institute of B.C. spent two years talking to 110 youth and adult sex workers about the province’s sex trade. Victoria and Campbell River were part of the study, as was Kamloops and Prince George. The study’s grim revelations underline that violence is commonplace in the sex trade, but it gets its start at home.
I found that to be the report’s key finding: That the “vast majority” of people interviewed for the study reported that their first experience of violence was as children in their own homes, usually at the hands of somebody who was supposed to be looking after them. Childhood sexual abuse was also a significant factor.
Everyone in the sex trade has a different story to tell, of course, and their stories aren’t all sad, predictable or anticipated. But ask them about their experiences around violence, and some common themes emerge. Kids who are hit, hurt and shamed while growing up are at higher risk of ending up with violence in their lives as adults, too.
The problem with having the media focus almost exclusively on the Western Communities party-place aspect of the report is that the kids and adults who most need the help get bypassed yet again. Everybody gets hysterical about scary bogeymen luring good middle-class kids to a ruinous life through drugs and parties, and nobody does a damn thing for the kids who the report is actually talking about.
Those kids are infinitely fixable, capable of turning their lives around even in the face of astounding life tragedy and disadvantage. They just need the right services at the right time, for as long as they need it. That’s a small price to pay for the chance to see today’s damaged children grow into tomorrow’s healthy parents and grandparents.
But they barely got a mention in all the media hubbub this week. Rather than real support for B.C.’s struggling families - where the participants in the Justice Institute study clearly haled from - I fear the conclusion we’ll draw based on the media coverage is that what’s really needed is yet another awareness program warning teens to stay away from party houses and drugs.
I guess it’s uncomfortable to take a genuine look at the sex trade, because that would require acknowledging that it exists the way it does because of us. We made the laws. Our men are the buyers. The reason the kids in the report virtually all said they wouldn’t dream of going to police with their problems is because we made it so they have a lot to lose by coming forward.
We’ve got to quit pretending that the sex trade happens only at some scary place on the outskirts of town, and that the answer is more enforcement. Police have their role to play, sure, but they’re just one small piece of the puzzle. We can’t continue our wasted efforts to “eliminate” prostitution, a folly that does nothing except to force the issue into ever-darker corners.
People are always asking me how we’ll “solve” the problems of the sex trade. Until we figure out why men buy sex, I don’t think that’s possible. Even if we could prevent every Canadian child from heading into the sex trade from this point on, children from other countries would simply flood in to meet the demand. That’s the unassailable law of the market.
But we can certainly do something to make life less miserable for those in the more unsavoury parts of the industry. We can support families and communities in raising healthy and happy kids in peaceful households, and helping children grow up to be better parents than their own parents knew how to be. The things that people need to step away from despair and hopelessness are within our reach to give.
Or we can let the issue die in a blaze of media coverage that completely misses the point. Surely not.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Norman Spector and the "bitch"
Nov. 3, 2006

A co-worker of mine keeps a “to do” list taped to her computer to remind her of ways to improve her life. Rule No. 1: “Keep ‘inside voices’ inside.”
As newspaper columnist and ex-politico Norman Spector is learning for himself this week, that’s a rule to live by. Having no fear about speaking your mind has its charming aspects, as anyone who has met Spector in person will know. But sooner or later, it’s going to trip you up big time.
Spector did a radio interview with Vancouver’s Bill Good this week and let loose about Belinda Stronach, the Liberal MP whose personal life has seemingly captivated Canada’s federal press gallery.
“Bitch is a word that I would use to describe someone like Belinda Stronach,” said Spector in the now infamous exchange. “You know, I’m not in politics, I can say it. I think she’s a bitch and I think that 90 per cent of men would probably say she’s a bitch for the way she’s broken up Tie Domi’s home and the way she dumped Peter MacKay.”
Perhaps Spector has already offered this opinion in less public settings. Having experienced the mixed blessing of his sharp and undiscerning intellect at my own dinner table a few years ago, I know the man doesn’t shy away from putting forth an opinion.
But Bill Goode’s show was no dinner party. Spector was live on the radio when he made those comments about Stronach, speaking to however many Lower Mainland radio listeners were tuned into the show. And that’s just not the place to let your inside voice do the talking.
Comments like Spector’s can be taken as insulting on so many fronts, and play into that tired old stereotype of the harlot luring good family men from their happy families. But without getting into the right and wrong of any of that, Spector’s biggest sin was to make his comments in a public arena.
He’s free to think what he likes about Belinda Stronach, of course; so far, nobody has figured out a way to nail us for the thoughts in our head. But he said it out loud - on the radio, no less. And that’s a big mistake.
For the most part, I enjoy people who speak their minds. I like people who make their position clear, because at least that tells me who I’m dealing with. If I were Stronach, I’d prefer to know right up front whether any national columnists thought of me as a “bitch” who’d wrecked Tie Domi’s marriage, as that would let me put their comments about me as a politician into the right context.
But that’s not to say I’d want to hear it on the radio, spoken as if it were truth. Spoken as if the subject should even be up for public discussion. Sure, we’re all free to our own opinions, but Spector of all people certainly ought to know that with such a right comes an equal measure of responsibility.
When one-time politico Mike Geoghegan mused in 2003 about B.C. MLA Jenny Kwan’s race and looks as factors in her getting elected, those who knew Geoghegan understood he didn’t really mean it to come out that way. No such kind interpretation can be given to Spector’s comments about Stronach. As a high-ranking advisor to former prime minister Brian Mulroney and B.C. premier Bill Bennett, Spector is no stranger to the concept of discretion.
In person, Spector is much nicer and way more fun than the average reader might anticipate based on his sombre analyses of world issues. But he’s got a ruthless streak, as I witnessed for myself at that fateful dinner party, during which he raised one intense, controversial topic after another as dinner-table conversation.
Abortion. Religion. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All the subjects they teach you to avoid in Dinner Party 101. He talked so ferociously about capital punishment that one of the more sensitive dinner guests finally broke into tears, prompting Spector to wonder aloud whether that explained why he didn’t get more return dinner invitations.
He’ll certainly be off Stronach’s invite list. But she’ll survive his rude and ungentlemanly comments, and will likely endure far worse in years to come if she sticks it out in federal politics. Being called a bitch by a guy Stronach is probably only barely aware of is no big deal in the grand scheme of things.
But Spector might want to do a little reflecting on the matter, and why it is he gave into such a childish bout of name-calling and judgment. He’s a smart, worldly guy who ought to feel mortified at being caught out sounding like a scorned teenager spluttering out insults as the prom queen passes by.
Inside voices, Norman. Some thoughts just aren’t meant to be shared.