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Stop blowing smoke

Monday, February 19, 2007
Chicago Tribune

A couple of weeks ago, in the fever of the Chicago Bears playoff run, three south suburban towns temporarily lifted smoking bans that had only recently gone into effect. The towns--Orland Park, Oak Forest and Tinley Park--said they did so because local businesses complained that customers were deserting them in favor of taverns and restaurants in nearby towns that still allowed smoking.

"This was the right thing to do," said Oak Forest Mayor JoAnn Kelly. "It's a matter of public health and yet we need to be compassionate and help the bars and their patrons who smoke gradually adapt to changing times."
So now the Super Bowl is over. But unfortunately, the move by those towns has kindled a fight over Cook County's impending smoking ban.

To recap: The county ban, passed last year, is set to take effect March 15. It covers smoking in public places--including restaurants, bars and workplaces--in unincorporated areas and municipalities of Cook County unless they already have a smoke-free law. It passed with virtually no opposition.

So what's the problem? Well, Chicago's law granted taverns and restaurants with bars a grace period until July 2008 to go smoke-free. So now some county commissioners want to delay that part of the county's ban to match Chicago's.

This is an idea that deserves to be stubbed out.

Some commissioners argue that matching Chicago's timing is about fairness for restaurateurs and bar owners, who complain they may lose business to establishments just over the city line that allow smoking.

But here's something for commissioners to keep in mind: There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, according to Richard Carmona, the U.S. surgeon general. "Based on the science," Carmona said, "I wouldn't allow anyone in my family to stand in a room with someone smoking."

Chicago's grace period is too long. Delaying the county's ban compounds the city's mistake and forfeits what would be a huge and immediate gain in public health in many places.

Even if the board were to push the deadline back because of Chicago, what about competition from businesses in Will, Lake, DuPage or McHenry Counties, none of which have passed countywide smoking bans? Commissioner Elizabeth Doody Gorman and others are right in calling for passing a statewide smoking bill. But it's not a compelling argument to turn back the clock on the county's initiative.

Even when the county ban is in force, most towns in the county still would have a choice. The county law allows them to opt out by passing their own smoking laws, which could be less restrictive than the county's. Several south and southwest suburban towns are scrambling to pass smoke-free laws now.

The County Board made the right decision last year, joining hundreds of communities across the country and around the world that are going smoke-free.

Let's stick to it.

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