March 28, 2007 Learning to breathe free:
Ban secondhand smoke
Many of us remember the time when secondhand smoke was such a minor concern, there wasn't even a term to describe it. Now, a majority of Americans, including 78 percent of Illinois voters in a recent survey, believe it poses a serious health risk. A report last year from the U.S. surgeon general added considerable weight to the cause by saying secondhand smoke leads to 46,000 deaths a year from heart disease and thousands of deaths from cancer and other ailments.
As in many other parts of the country, various cities and towns in Illinois have banned smoking in public places. But for all the support for such ordinances, there remain areas throughout the state where smokers have it easier. Two weeks ago, the Cook County Clear Indoor Air Ordinance took effect, but not in municipalities such as Cicero and Berwyn, which scrambled to beat it to the punch by passing less restrictive ordinances -- ones allowing restaurants and bars to designate smoking and nonsmoking areas. Such is the patchwork nature of anti-smoking legislation; if you don't like the rules in the town you're in, there's a good chance you can escape them in the next one over.
Which is where the Smoke Free Illinois Act, a pair of matching bills in the state Senate and House, comes in. The Senate bill is expected to be put to a full vote this week. (The deadline for the House bill is late April.) If the act passes, it will level the nonsmoking playing field by barring smoking in workplaces, bars and restaurants, dormitories and such all across Illinois. (The effective date will be delayed for casinos to allow them a period of adjustment.)
Supporters of Smoke Free Illinois, including its chief sponsor in the Senate, Terry Link (D-Vernon Hills), are cautiously optimistic it will pass. But with Senate President Emil Jones and Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson withholding their support, the vote will be close. The pressure to vote against it comes largely from the business community. Restaurant owners claim, in the face of evidence to the contrary, smoking bans drive diners away and they themselves should decide what their smoking policy is.
Were it not for the certifiable risk secondhand smoke poses to restaurant employees and other people who are involuntarily exposed to it, we would sympathize with restaurateurs. But though we wish the act included a provision similar to the one in Chicago's ordinance permitting smoking in tobacco shops/bars where 65 percent of the sales are of tobacco or tobacco accessories, we believe its time has come and urge its passage. Twenty-one other states have responded to popular consensus on this issue. It's time Illinois did, too. This represents the view of Sun-Times News Group newspapers in metropolitan Chicago.