Stop blowing smoke

Editorial - September 2005

Children in Illinois—indeed, all of us—may be able to breathe a little easier in 2006. That’s because the Illinois legislature passed a bill granting each of the state’s 1,200 communities the ability to ban smoking in public places. Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the bill in August. It takes effect Jan. 1.

The Chicago area already is plagued with poor quality air outdoors. The July issue of Chicago Parent included the second installment of an investigative report on the health of our children. It shows that our children regularly breathe air that contains unsafe levels of soot and ozone. Why should the air inside public places be unsafe as well?

Bad air can shorten lives and is particularly hard on children, whose developing lungs are vulnerable to toxins known to cause asthma and other chronic health problems. The first part of our investigative series, published last October, shows that the Chicago area has some of the highest rates of asthma in the country and our political leaders are doing very little about it.

We know that smoking harms smokers. And we know the smoke they exhale harms those around them, particularly children. Kids who are around smoke are more likely to contract asthma and other respiratory ailments. Exposure to secondhand smoke increases the number and severity of asthma attacks in children, and it has been linked to low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome and inner ear infections.

It’s not surprising. Secondhand smoke contains more than 4,000 chemicals and at least 69 carcinogens, including cyanide, arsenic, methane and formaldehyde, according to the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago.

Local lawmakers now have the tool they need to take one, small step toward healthier children. We’d love to see all of the restaurants and bars in this state smoke free. Nationally, 14 states and more than 1,900 municipalities already have laws restricting where smokers can smoke. The laws ban smoking in workplaces, restaurants, bars or all three, according to the Berkeley, Calif.-based American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation.

Highland Park and Wilmette have taken a strong stand with their ordinances. Skokie has a more watered down one. But that leaves a lot of other suburbs in the six county area that have yet to do anything.

Until now, many of them couldn’t. Now they can. Chicago has had the legal ability to pass a ban all along. But the city has lacked the political will.

An ordinance that would ban smoking in all restaurants and bars has been languishing in the City Council. Bar owners say it could kill their businesses and Ald. Burton F. Natarus (42nd) plans to introduce a compromise ordinance in September that would allow bars and restaurants to pay an annual fee for the right to have smoking patrons on the premises—in effect an opt-out tax that allows them to poison patrons.

We’d like to see the 100 percent ban, but if Natarus’ compromise ordinance proceeds, at least limit it to bars. Children don’t go to bars and it is our responsibility to advocate for their rights.

But we would accept only an ordinance that bans smoking completely in all restaurants. Nonsmoking sections aren’t enough. Smokers may sit in a designated section, but that doesn’t mean the smoke stays there.

This is a public health issue. Everyone—from the workers to the patrons—is healthier in a smoke-free environment. Heck, even Louisville, Ky., the biggest city in a tobacco-growing state, is considering a ban on smoking in most public buildings, workplaces and businesses. They grow the stuff and they know it hurts people.

Cleaning up the air outdoors in the Chicago area is a huge undertaking. Cleaning up the air indoors isn’t. All it takes are lawmakers willing to turn on the "no smoking" sign in the name of children’s health.


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