Bill fires up debate over smoking in bars, restaurants

Monday, June 13, 2005

EL PASO, Ill. -- Donna Pinkham lit up a cigarette, then lit into a state bill that could snuff out smoking at the small-town bar where she passes time ribbing friends and sliding quarters into a video poker machine.

"I think they ought to leave us alone. Why should we not be able to smoke anywhere just because nonsmokers don't? We have our rights, too," Pinkham, 62, said between drags at the bar in El Paso.

Health advocates argue that nonsmokers also have a right -- to clean air. They support the legislation sent to Gov. Rod Blagojevich that would give each of Illinois' 1,200 cities, towns and villages the authority to enact local tobacco restrictions, including bans for bars and restaurants.

Across the state, the bill has fired up a debate pitting the hazards of second-hand smoke against whether government should be mandating what happens inside private businesses.

Blagojevich will sign the legislation, spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch said Thursday. Still, supporters and mayors around the state predict few communities will be quick to jump on the smoke-free bandwagon.

Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis said a majority of the city council has already agreed that banning smoking is a decision for restaurant and bar owners, not city government.

"We think it's antibusiness to legislate something like that," Ardis said.

Salem Mayor Leonard Ferguson, a former smoker who has had two heart attacks and bypasses, supports more restrictions but suspects his council will side with free enterprise. Even officials in Alton, where none of the city council members are smokers, would be reluctant to adopt a ban, fearing it could chase customers to neighboring towns, said Alton Mayor Don Sandidge.

"Think about it, most drinkers smoke. So would they drive to Bloomington if we banned smoking here?" said Mayor Shaun Hermes of Hudson, a small town whose 15 businesses include two bars.

Health advocates have lobbied for local control since 1989, when Illinois adopted statewide restrictions on smoking in public places that barred cities from adding stricter regulations, such as on restaurant and taverns.

The only exceptions were 21 cities that already had their own smoking ordinances in place. Only four -- Wilmette, Skokie, Evanston and Highland Park -- have passed additional restrictions. But efforts continue in other exempted cities, including Chicago, where another bid to go smoke-free is expected this summer.

"This isn't really about a ban, about telling other people what to do. It's about our expectation that if we walk into a place that's public that our environment is as reasonably safe as possible," said Mark Peysakhovich, senior director of advocacy for the American Heart Association's regional office in Chicago.

Eleven states and dozens of cities and counties around the country now ban smoking in restaurants, bars or both.

But Illinois mayors worry that local bans could put bars and restaurants at risk, particularly if neighboring towns don't ban smoking. Roughly 12 percent of state and local sales taxes comes from bars and restaurants, according to the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association.

Steve Riedl, the association's executive director, said bars and restaurants in cities that have banned smoking have lost 10 to 35 percent of their business, and many went under.

Eric Blackmore predicts his bar in El Paso, a town of 2,500 people north of Bloomington, would lose half its business and wouldn't survive.

"A bar has always been a smoking establishment. Your smokers are going to quit coming in if they can't smoke. It'll ruin business for a small town," Blackmore said.

Health advocates reject those economic arguments. Steve Derks, CEO of the American Cancer Society's Chicago office, cited a cancer society poll in which 87 percent of Chicago respondents said they would go to bars and restaurants as much or more if smoking were banned.

"The economics are irrefutable ... there has been no negative economic impact on restaurants, bars or workplaces," Derks said.

Smoking supporters similarly challenge statistics that second-hand smoke causes up to 40,000 deaths from heart disease and 3,000 from lung cancer every year.

"That has never been proven conclusively. It's been a witch hunt for the last 25 years," said Garnet Dawn, Midwest regional director of The Smokers Club Inc., a national informational network that supports smokers' rights.

Linda Childers, a smoker from El Paso, thinks the decision should come down to common sense. She says she could accept a ban in restaurants, where children would be exposed to the smoke, but not in bars.

Many restaurants are already policing themselves by using filtering systems and non-smoking sections, said Colleen McShane, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association. She said there had been a 70 to 90 percent increase in nonsmoking seats over the last five years.

Cities have other options besides bans if the bill becomes law, such as requiring large, brightly colored labels outside bars and restaurants alerting customers that smoking is permitted, said Bloomington Mayor Steve Stockton.

"It's not a black-and-white issue, it's gray," he said. "Still, I would hope that people would make an individual decision to avoid smoking for their own health as opposed to not smoking because of a ban."

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