Last week my daughter remarked that she couldn’t believe how fast time seems to go. I snorted the snort of an old man and gave the standard old fogy reply, “wait until you get to my age.”

Not only is time flying by at the speed of light, I find myself changing in ways that just a few years ago I would have found impossible to believe. I find I need spicier food to entertain my well-worn taste buds, I would rather vacation in Alaska than Vegas, I actually enjoy going to the Art Institute of Chicago and I am strangely fascinated by architecture. Not in a way that I can explain because I have difficulty distinguishing an arch from a column. Rather it’s the same way that Richard Dreyfus stared at the mountain of mash potatoes he made in the movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” I don’t understand it, I just like it.

So on Tuesday, Feb. 15, as I entered the Oak Park Village Building, I walked silently and stared, looking lost and hopelessly interested at the same time. I had come to witness a public hearing of the Oak Park Board of Health concerning the proposed smoking ban in their village. The meeting room was striking with its curved, church pew-like seating.

Unlike our village council chambers where Forest Parks’ official leaders sit druggist style on an elevated stage with the audiences out of lunging distance, the Oak Park powers sit lower than the audience in a pit-like atmosphere, not unlike some college basketball venues. You have no business running for office in Oak Park if you suffer from claustrophobia.

For close to an hour and a half I witnessed as proponents and opponents of the ban were allotted their three minutes of exhortation. Some were nervous, some excited and a few, very loud. But, for the most part, it was the same old arguments that have played out before at the Oak Park village council meetings and in the newspapers.

Proponents of the ban, including several doctors, relied primarily on the issue of second-hand smoke and the adverse medical conditions that it can aggravate. The more interesting arguments came from the opponents of the ban who were primarily restaurateurs and business associations who were concerned about the loss of sales that would result. The other major arguments opponents of the ban used were actually a bit curious ” they repeated the word “freedom” as in “Freedom of Choice.” Somewhere along the line they came to believe there is some sort of constitutional protection guaranteeing freedom of choice.

I always enjoy when people invoke the constitutionality of a certain proposed action claiming their “freedom” or their “rights” are being infringed upon. It’s bad enough that in the year 2005 there are still people who believe that the second amendment guarantees them the right to own a gun! Now we have smoking rights advocates claiming that a ban not only would drive them out of business, but also would make Thomas Jefferson roll over in his grave.

A restaurant owner in Oak Park suggested the wildest idea. That idea was that our brave soldiers in Iraq are protecting the very freedoms (there’s that word again) that this ban would obliterate. It seems to me that I heard our troops are over there to locate weapons of mass destruction … errr … I mean, fight terrorism … uh … I really mean bring democracy to the Middle East, or something.

OK, I don’t really know why our troops are there, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to protect the smoking rights of a small group of addicts in Oak Park

The restaurateurs will tell you that 70 percent of the restaurants in Oak Park are already smoke free by choice. The fact that they are not just existing but thriving, disproves the concept that business will flee from the remaining 30 percent should they be forced to comply with a smoking ban.

We can argue about how the numbers supporting both sides of the issue are collated, dissected, manipulated, and misinterpreted. If you don’t believe the studies about how second-hand smoke affects the health of smokers and non-smokers alike, fine. Don’t rely on the studies. Here’s an idea ” ask your doctor. Or visit to a hospital and ask several doctors. Don’t ask the restaurant owners; don’t ask smokers; don’t ask the tobacco company. Ask the medical professionals and see what they have to say.

This is not an issue that will have a compromise. Both sides will not be happy. One side will win and one will lose. This is neighbor against neighbor, business against business.

While there’s not a compromise to be had, there is a solution. The biggest concern for the restaurants, unfounded in my opinion, is that they will lose their business to neighboring communities that don’t have a ban, such as Forest Park. To level the playing field, it would seem fair to have a statewide ban on smoking in all public buildings. Currently there is a group of progressive legislators in Springfield trying to do just that. Actually they have been trying for the past couple of years, only to be defeated by representatives and senators whose campaign coffers are swollen by the restaurant and tobacco industries.
If enough proponents and opponents of a smoking ban take the time to dun their representatives and senators requesting that they back such a bill, these controversies will disappear. They will have enough courage to vote for a bill that they know is the right thing to do. Their wallets may suffer short-term, but who cares? The playing field in the state of Illinois will have been leveled.