Though it may not be popular with some bar owners and patrons, Forest Park bartender Mike Lund said the decision by state lawmakers to ban smoking in public at least levels the playing field for everyone.

“In that respect the state law is more fair,” Lund, a bartender at Circle Inn on the corner of Circle and Marengo streets, said.

Late last month Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed the Smoke Free Illinois Act making it a punishable offense to light up in long-established havens such as bars, bowling alleys and even private clubs beginning with the start of the New Year. The ban renders moot the hotly debated Cook County ban that prompted village officials earlier this year to adopt a local ordinance that allowed smokers to continue puffing through 2007.

The county’s legislation went into effect on March 31 and closely mirrors the state law, but included a provision allowing municipalities to overrule the ban.

Having a law that applies equally across the state, Lund said, eliminates any concern that businesses in one community will take a hit because its smoking policy differs from that of its neighbors.

Mayor Anthony Calderone said anti-smoking legislation at any level prompts a debate over ideologies, and he’s happy to be relieved of the burden.

“Frankly I’m pleased because it creates a level playing field,” Calderone said. “For those of us mayors, it means we don’t have to deal with the argument.”

In January when the council voted 3-2 to protect the rights of smokers, Calderone successfully lobbied for a sunset provision that would have forced the village to revisit the issue in 2008 had the state not enacted a smoking ban. No doubt, opinions on the matter would have been fiercely defended, Calderone said.

Commissioner Mark Hosty, a non-smoker who manages a Madison Street bar, would have voted against any restrictions, had he been given the chance.

“I’m a firm believer in letting the people decide with their money,” Hosty said.

Hosty acknowledged the state law gives patrons little reason to shop around in search of a more agreeable policy, but he is concerned that customers will simply stay at home. The bill’s timing too, he said, is particularly poor given that smokers will be forced outdoors.

“I think the idea of invoking the law on Jan. 1 in the Midwest is kind of cruel,” Hosty said.

Illinois is the 22nd state in the country to ban smoking in public places. According to the governor’s office, 2,900 people die each year from secondhand smoke in Illinois. More than 16,000 die from smoking related illnesses.

With several months to go before the state law takes effect and a likely deluge of media coverage on the issue before then, Village Administrator Mike Sturino said it’s unlikely there will be a grace period for business owners and smokers come Jan. 1. Individuals caught smoking in violation of the law will be fined $100 to $250. Entrepreneurs face a steeper penalty with fines beginning at $250. Subsequent violations within a 12-month period will incur a penalty of $500 and $2,500, according to the state legislation.

That money will be shared evenly between the state and the municipality.

“I don’t think anyone that owns a bar in town isn’t aware of this issue,” Sturino said.