Council tightens tobacco policy

By Eric Chima

Champaign youths will have to start thinking twice about lighting up in public.

Those that don’t will risk a $145 fine, the result of an ordinance passed by the Champaign City Council Tuesday banning tobacco possession among youths 18 and under.

The council voted 8-1 for the ordinance, the latest in a string of tobacco issues that have come through the council chambers in recent months.

Several members of the Champaign-Urbana Smokefree Alliance spoke against the law, which they saw as an empty gesture after an ordinance banning smoking in restaurants and bars failed in September.

Councilman Tom Bruno said the council had nothing but good intentions.

“This isn’t about appearances,” Bruno said. “I just want to make it illegal for kids to possess tobacco.”

Current Illinois state law punishes clerks that sell tobacco to minors, but not the minors themselves.

The new law will allow police to stop youths they see smoking, a change that delighted Jonathan Westfield, the community outreach officer for the Champaign Police Department.

“I’m very happy,” Westfield said. “It’s always kind of limited when you say ‘no, we don’t want you to do it, but it’s not illegal.’ Given the opportunity, without any consequences, they’ll go down that path, and we want to take that away from them.”

Geraldo Rosales was the only councilman to oppose the ordinance, calling it unfair for targeting high school students and asking again for a total ban on smoking in bars, restaurants and walkways.

Scott Hayes, president of the Champaign-Urbana Smokefree Alliance and University professor, said the measure was incomplete and ineffective.

He said the council needed to earmark the proceeds from fines for smoking prevention programs, force violators to enter tobacco education programs, license tobacco retailers, and have more stringent enforcement on tobacco sales to have a real impact on youth smoking.

“All groups for tobacco control oppose youth possession laws,” Hayes said. “What (the council) did was not a bad thing, but a pointless thing. (Kids) won’t smoke in public, but they’ll still smoke.”

The law will go into effect immediately, but Westfield said police would allow a grace period before they began stringent enforcement.

“We’re not going to go out and decimate the community,” Westfield said. “We’ll take this in steps.”

Mayor Gerald Schweighart, who proposed the ordinance, said he may not have started smoking himself if it was on the books when he was in high school.

“I’m not a person that generally disobeys the law, so maybe I’d have been affected by that,” Schweighart said.