State smoking ban puts out citywide debate

Photo Ilustration by Aaron Facemire

Photo Ilustration by Aaron Facemire

By Patrick Wade

After years of debate, the smoke is beginning to clear around one of Illinois’ most pressing public health issues. The “Smoke-free Illinois Act” went into effect Jan. 1, banning smoking in most indoor public places and ending public debate in local governments, but private debate still continues in Urbana and Champaign as to whether the smoking ban was the right move.After years of debate, the smoke is beginning to clear around one of Illinois’ most pressing public health issues.

The “Smoke-free Illinois Act” went into effect Jan. 1, banning smoking in most indoor public places and ending public debate in local governments, but private debate still continues in Urbana and Champaign as to whether the smoking ban was the right move.

Norm Phillips, senior in LAS and a non-smoker, is one student who will be attending the bars more often.

“Personally, yes, it benefits me,” Phillips said. “But I think it’s government interfering too much in peoples’ lives.”

Phillips enjoys patronizing smoke-free bars, but said the ban is burning business owners by cutting too far into their individual rights.

“It’s a great thing,” said At-Large Champaign City Council member Thomas Bruno. “People will be healthier. Workers will have a safer environment in which to work.”

Enforcement of the ban will be largely complaint driven, Champaign Mayor Gerald Schweighart said, and controlled by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“Like a lot of laws, it will be one that will not be enforced very heavy unless there are complaints made,” Schweighart said.

The Champaign City Council has fought back and forth with the idea of a smoking ban for the past two years. The Council originally voted in favor of a total smoking ban in 2006, which took effect in Champaign in January of last year.

After the April 2007 elections shifted the political makeup from a liberal to a conservative majority, the Council voted for a partial repeal of the smoking ban, allowing smoking in bars but still prohibiting it in public restaurants.

Now, as the statewide ban goes into effect, Schweighart, who consistently voted against the ban, said this means little to nothing for Champaign.

“We abide by state law,” Schweighart said.

Schweighart, like many opponents of the ban, said that the smoking ban has negative economic effects.

Although the Champaign ban did not greatly affect restaurants, he said, the bars were hurting “pretty bad” until the partial repeal was approved.

He added that bars were dealing with an “unlevel playing field,” where smokers could go to surrounding communities without the ban to have a beer and a cigarette. Now that the ban is statewide, Schweighart said, the economic blow may be softened.

Bruno said the economic argument stands on shaky ground.

“It’s a proven economic route to success for the hospitality industry,” Bruno said.

Food and beverage sales tax receipts in Champaign showed a 9.3 percent drop in February 2007, but a 7.9 percent increase in March 2007, compared to the previous year. The smoking ban was in effect for bars and restaurants during both those months.

The snowfall in February 2007, which shut down the University for two days and closed many local businesses, may have caused the drop off in sales tax receipts for that month, Bruno said.

“Businesses will be flourishing,” Bruno said. “We knew that when we imposed it on a local basis.”

A smoking ban has been in effect in Urbana since August 2006, and Mayor Laurel Prussing said the statewide law is only making the ban easier for Urbana.

“People can’t say, ‘Well I’ll just go to a different town,'” said Prussing, a proponent of the ban.

Urbana was one of the first cities in the state to deal with the ban 30 years ago when it mandated that restaurants must set aside an area for smoking.

Regardless of the dizzying debate, Dist. 2 Champaign City Council member Michael La Due, who also works at Jon’s Pipe Shop, 509 E. Green St., said he is still afraid some “mom and pop” businesses are in trouble.

“It’s hard to imagine how some of them are going to survive,” La Due said. Although the smoking ban has not yet closed any bars or restaurants in Champaign, La Due said that many of them expect to with the statewide ban.

“Citywide, (the debate) is over,” Schweighart said.

Penalties for businesses found to be in violation:

$250 for first violation

$500 for second violation

$2,500 minimum fine for subsequent violations within one year of the first violation

Penalty for individual found to be in violation:

Minimum $100 fine with maximum up to $250

Source: smoke-free.illinois.gov