What the Vancouver park board isn't telling you about its smoking ban
Media commentators often treat smoking as though it's a lifestyle choice.
It might explain why the Vancouver park board has not encountered a great deal of opposition from newspaper columnists over its decision to ban smoking from beaches and parks.
But for many mentally ill people, nicotine provides relief for their brains.
A paper published in 2000 in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that people with mental illness are "about twice as likely to smoke as other persons but have substantial quit rates".
According to the Web site schizophrenia.com, almost 90 percent of people with schizophrenia smoke.
For those with bipolar disorder, the rate is between 60 and 70 percent.
It's why people with schizophrenia are more likely to die of cancer than those in the general population.
"Certain thinking patterns are affected in schizophrenia including sustained attention, focused attention, working memory, short-term memory, recognition memory and even processes that are preattentive (eg reflexes)," the Web site states. "Some studies have suggested there may be improvements in these areas after treatment with nicotine."
A schizophrenia researcher at the University of Maryland, Dr. Gunvant Thaker, studies genetic links between schizophrenia and nicotine addiction.
Schizophrenia.com cited a 2004 article in the Baltimore Sun in which Thaker talked about a faulty gene. People with this gene cannot tune out repeated noise, like a car alarm, which might explain why people with schizophrenia display confusion and fear in harmless situations.
This same faulty gene is also a nicotine-receptor gene.
"When schizophrenia patients smoke, or are given nicotine gum, this deficit of sensory gating is reduced or normalized," Thaker told the paper.
Yale researchers learned that cognitive functioning improved in people with schizophrenia after they smoked. This didn't occur in people without mental illness.
Other research has indicated that auditory processing improves for people with schizophrenia when they use nicotine.
"In addition, schizophrenic patients have fewer nicotine receptors in their brains than normal people," schizophrenia.com reports.
Cigarettes contain hundreds of toxic chemicals, which is why some nicotine replacements, such as the patch, have been recommended to people with schizophrenia.
But not everyone with schizophrenia is going to walk into a pharmacy to buy a patch.
By banning smoking from beaches and parks, the elected commissioners have basically put up a "not welcome" sign to many people with schizophrenia.
That's because the vast majority of people with schizophrenia smoke because it provides some relief for their symptoms, which include psychosis.
They may be less likely to go to Oppenheimer Park or English Bay to relax if they know they'll get harassed about lighting up a cigarette.
Because society loathes smokers, nobody will raise a fuss about this.
Doctors don't want to be seen to be supporting smoking. No local politician will question the ban.
I don't expect to see any deep-pocketed downtown lawyers rushing to the defence of people with schizophrenia. There won't be a charter challenge against the nonsmoking bylaw even though it discriminates against people on the basis of their disability.
If you know someone with schizophrenia who smokes, here's something you can do to help: tell them that they're still allowed to puff on a cigarette in regional parks.
Capilano River Regional Park and Pacific Spirit Regional Park are just two examples.
The joggers and the dog walkers might not like it, but for people with a serious and chronic mental illness, it sure beats hanging out in an alley in the Downtown Eastside.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.