I don't often feel sorry for the Village of Oak Park. There has always been an air of superiority about its residents that I don't really appreciate. Hemingway, Frank Lloyd Wright, bigger homes, a cap over their portion of the Ike ... all of it being held over the collective heads of Forest Parkers. One Oak Parker even told me that the only reason Forest Park exists is because our drinking establishments are chock full of Hemingway wannabes. It was hard to argue otherwise with a man drinking a Corona Light with a twist.
Recently, however, I have been commiserating with our eastern neighbors as they debate their smoking ban. This controversy has drawn a clear line in the sand for those in favor of a total smoking ban and those opposed. Both sides have powerful allies whose job it is to sway public opinion or at least the opinion of those who will ultimately vote on the matter.
The primary argument for the ban is that secondhand smoke can and does cause death to thousands who are consistently exposed to it and aggravates medical conditions such as asthma. By eliminating this exposure, the thousands doomed to die because of it would live longer and die from something else.
The main opposition comes from restaurants and bars that fear their smoking clientele will take their business to communities where no ban exists. The domino effect then begins with a loss of jobs and tax revenue. Besides, the argument continues, the employees who work there do so voluntarily, fully aware of any potential health risks. Most of these establishments are required to segregate smokers from non-smokers and customers have the choice to take their business to a smoke-free environment.
There are a dwindling few who do not believe the results of extensive research by hundreds of respected scholars and doctors stating that second-hand smoke causes numerous health problems, primarily cancer. One of these people is my college roommate who goes by our fraternity-imposed nickname Ghost. A chemist for over 20 years, he believes evidence of health problems is dubious, some sort of government conspiracy similar to the mandatory seatbelt law.
It was with some curiosity that my girlfriend and I went to visit Ghost and his family last weekend. He just became a father and his wife, ironically a nurse, is a smoker. I was interested in seeing how the combination of smoking and baby would play out. The answer was that his wife, Mary, is banished to the basement when she gets her cravings. The reason is not health-related but stink-related.
While we can debate forever the health issues and the idea of unwarranted government intervention, the fact is, smoking stinks. We can all agree to that. This alone should be enough reason to ban it from public areas. Those who choose not to smoke should not have to wash their clothes and hair several times just because others choose to smoke.
The segregation of smokers from non-smokers is not enough. I for one don't enjoy the idea of spending a good buck or two on a nice meal on Madison Street and having my salad seasoned with nicotine. If smokers can fly across the country without lighting up, how come they can't hold out for an hour during dinner?
If Forest Park passed an ordinance banning smoking in public, the businesses in Oak Park and other neighboring suburbs wouldn't have to worry about losing customers to us and vice versa. On the North Shore, Wilmette, Skokie and Evanston have smoking bans. I haven't heard any headlines about their entertainment districts becoming ghost towns.
A smoking ban would also garner free publicity for the village, promoting us as forward-thinking and enlightened. Sooner or later the Feds are going to pass a law banning it anyway, so let's get ahead of the game. While I'm sure that a business or two in town will be negatively affected, the same can be said of legislation like the recent increase in sales tax. Besides, the bar business in Forest Park is a virtual local monopoly.
By standing with Oak Park and encouraging nearby communities to do the same, we would be insulating our businesses from loss of revenue resulting from a smoking ban. While this would entail having everybody walk through a gauntlet of carcinogens as smokers cluster around the entrance of a restaurant, it beats having my vanilla ice cream taste like Lucky Strikes.
There are those in town who are image-conscious and believe it's in our collective best interest to become a mini-Oak Park. I prefer we chart our own course and keep a degree of anonymity. However, Oak Park is on the right track here. I say we should follow in their footsteps but do it faster than the slow-to-decide Oak Park. Let's take the lead and pass our own ban on smoking; make them follow us for a change.
Then we can both go about the serious business of banning cell phones in restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores, athletic events ...