Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Some of the best learning situations about the nature of any given culture are the misunderstandings that arise when people from different cultures collide.

Recently, I was witness to one here in Canada involving a relative who was visiting from Lebanon.

My cousin, Ed, approached a variety store owner to buy a bag of loose-leaf tobacco to roll his cigarettes. For those who don’t know: Canada is a country obsessed with enacting regulations. Perhaps rightly, it has some of the toughest anti-smoking laws in the world. In one of the stranger of those dictates, the province of Ontario prohibits the visual display of tobacco products in grocery, convenience and drug stores. Cigarettes are placed on shelves hidden behind bland looking barriers.

Coming from a country with far less regulation, and almost no effective government apparatus, Ed was unprepared for what unfolded..

Ed: Hi, do you sell rolling tobacco?

Store Owner: We do.

Ed: Can I see what kinds you have?

Store Owner: I’m sorry, sir, but it’s not possible.

Ed: What do you mean “it’s not possible”?

Store Owner: It’s against the law.

Ed: To sell tobacco?

Store Owner: No. Against the law to show you.

Ed: But, I don’t know what brands you have.

Store Owner: I’m sorry sir, but this is the law. There’s a notice on the door saying it’s illegal to display tobacco items.

Ed: But how am I supposed to choose? If I can’t see what you have?

Store Owner: I’m sorry. But I like I said, this is the law. You just tell me what you want.

Ed: Fine, then. I’ll have a pack of Drum.

Store Owner: Here you go.

Ed: Can I see your rolling papers?

Store Owner: I’m sorry, but you can’t see those either.

Ed: You must be joking!

Store Owner: No sir. The law says that item is related to tobacco use. So I have to keep it hidden as well.

Ed: That’s crazy. Alright, I’ll take Rizla papers if you have those.

Store Owner: We do.

Ed: Can I choose a lighter? Or are those also related to tobacco use?

Store Owner: They’re not. But –

Ed: But what?!?

Store Owner: I can only sell you a yellow or blue lighter.

Ed: Is that also because of the law?

Store Owner: No, it’s because that’s all I have left!

Even with the reference to the law, the encounter left Ed baffled. He understood the societal reflex – happening everywhere – to curtail tobacco use. But hiding the tobacco seemed to him to be a prudish ordinance. Passive-aggressive, even, while still selling it. And the clerk’s reaction was strangely unbending. It wasn’t something that someone like Ed from both a smoking and mercantile culture (with its socializing, haggling and displaying of wares in the bazaar) would find normal – regardless of the rationale.

I later did some research into the law. Things may have gone smoother if the clerk was better informed about the regulations. The law enables (just barely) some wiggle room for informing tobacco-buying customers of their options.

An Ontario Ministry of Health website states:

“Retailers will continue to be permitted up to three signs that indicate the availability of tobacco in their stores. These signs must comply with section 7 of the Regulation (O.Reg. 48/06) and must use black text against a white background.

“To help in product selection, retailers may offer customers a binder or other reference tool containing an inventory of tobacco products available for purchase. This tool must comply with all other requirements of the Smoke-Free Ontario Act relating to the promotion of tobacco products. The proper use of this tool is for reference and not for distribution or display.

“The binder may not be left open on the counter. It must be stored away from view, e.g. beneath the counter, and may be used by a clerk and a customer of legal age to buy tobacco, to identify products for purchase. The binder should only be taken out during a sale and then returned immediately to its storage location.”