Penn's Lighting-Up Ignites Canada's Health Officials

TORONTO (CP) - Hollywood bad boy Sean Penn should be charged with violating the province's smoking ban after he puffed his way through a news conference promoting his latest movie at the Toronto International Film Festival, Ontario Health Promotion Minister Jim Watson said Wednesday.

Photos of Penn enjoying a cigarette during the news conference have been splashed across local and national newspapers since the actor arrived in Toronto last week for the annual festival.

"No one is above the law, whether it's Sean Penn or someone at the local tavern," Watson said.

"Sean Penn's a great actor, but quite frankly . . .if he was smoking and in breach of the law, he could be charged, and he should be charged."

Watson also said public health inspectors could be doing a better job of enforcing the controversial ban at film festival venues, where Penn and other stars have often been seen with cigarettes in hand.

"If we know that there are continuous annual re-occurrences of problems like that, perhaps the Toronto Public Health Unit should be more proactive," he said.

"I certainly would hope that the Toronto International Film Festival would remind (movie stars), in a not-so-subtle fashion, that guests coming here shouldn't simply go out and (thumb) their nose at our laws."

Dr. Sheela Basrur, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said it was would be up to organizers of events like the film festival and the managers of the host hotels to ensure their guests were aware of the smoking ban, and to make sure it was followed.

"Before we go out talking about enforcement officers and whose uniform is going to be on the scene, we need to first ensure that the managers of these events and facilities comply with their obligations under the law," Basrur said.

"(Penn's smoking) has certainly been an item of significant attention . . . and I expect Toronto Public Health to follow provincial protocols in investigating."

At one point during the news conference, which was convened to mark the first 100 days of the province's comprehensive new anti-smoking law, Watson asked Basrur if inspectors would be going after Penn.

"As the former (Toronto) medical officer of health, are you going to issue a ticket to Sean Penn?" asked Watson.

"Hopefully, I wouldn't have to," laughed Basrur.

Charges can't be laid until the health unit receives an official complaint about Penn's decision to smoke at the Sutton Place hotel, which hasn't yet happened.

Toronto city Coun. Joe Mihevc, a member of the city's board of health, said Wednesday an investigation was underway and that either Penn or the hotel could be charged.

"Super-stardom does not mean that you can side-step any laws or bylaws, and I think that's an important message to get out," Mihevc said. About 300 people have been charged since Ontario's provincewide smoking ban went into effect in May. They were all assessed fines of $105, Watson said.

Organizers of the Toronto International Film Festival did not immediately return calls Wednesday.

Penn isn't the only high-profile entertainer to find himself in hot water for violating smoking laws.

City council in Glasgow, Scotland decided recently not to prosecute Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards for smoking on stage during an August concert at Hampden Park national stadium.

Richards could have faced a fine of about $150, but environmental officers said the stage used by the Stones did not qualify as an enclosed public place as defined by the city's smoking ban.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.