Restaurant smoking bans give off the foul odor of intolerance

November 18, 2003|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - There are all sorts of restaurants in this broad land of ours. You can find Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Indian, German, Ethiopian or Greek. You can choose steakhouses or vegetarian spots, fast food or slow, heart-healthy or artery-clogging, chain or independent, seedy or elegant.

But in Wilmette, Ill., a Chicago suburb, there will soon be only one kind of restaurant: nonsmoking.

The village board has approved the strictest anti-smoking ban in Illinois, including not only dining establishments but bars, bowling alleys and country clubs. This brings the town into line with a fashion that has spread from California to New York City. It also renews hope among tobacco opponents of getting cigarettes banished from restaurants in Chicago, currently the biggest city in America to allow smoking in restaurants.

As a lifelong nonsmoker, I don't like to see smoke when I'm eating, unless it's billowing from a barbecue pit. But I'm not one of those who think that anything that suits me should also be required by law.

Tobacco opponents once had to endure the risk of being enveloped in fumes anytime they went out to eat. But as the number of smokers has declined, restaurants have adapted to satisfy nonsmokers. They forbid cigars and pipes, offer separate smokers and nonsmokers sections, or simply prohibit smoking altogether.

Wilmette has 39 restaurants, and before the ordinance was passed, 33 of them didn't allow smoking. Anyone with an aversion to the smell of tobacco had plenty of dining options even without crossing village boundaries. Chicago, for that matter, has some 500 smoke-free restaurants.

But getting their way 85 percent of the time was not enough for the proponents of total bans.

The advocates insist their policy is essential for public health. They argue that secondhand smoke from cigarettes endangers the health of patrons as well as employees, and that a smoking ban is the only adequate protection.

The Environmental Protection Agency says these fumes are hazardous, but not all experts agree. John C. Bailar III, former editor in chief of The Journal of the National Cancer Institute, is among those with doubts. "We still do not know, with accuracy, how much or even whether exposure to environmental tobacco smoke increases the risk of coronary heart disease," he wrote in 1999 in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Even if prolonged exposure is dangerous, it's not clear that an occasional whiff in a restaurant would have any effect.

But assuming the most dire claims are true, they don't justify a one-size-fits-some policy. People choose to take risks every day, and if exposure to tobacco fumes is one, it's hard to see why they shouldn't have the option of accepting or rejecting it.

You don't like the smell of fried food? Avoid fast-food outlets. You don't like smoking? Go to a place where it's not permitted. In a sector as diverse and crowded with competitors as the restaurant industry, there should be room for places that indulge people who want to light up. Majority rule can be reconciled with minority protections.

The anti-smoking forces say that approach ignores the danger to restaurant and bar employees, who stand to breathe much more polluted air than patrons. "It's not a matter of choice to let people work in conditions that are a health risk," says Joel Africk, head of the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago.

But why not? We don't outlaw logging, even though the industry has an on-the-job death rate about 30 times higher than the national average, or commercial fishing, which is 17 times more dangerous than the typical workplace. We assume that rational adults can judge for themselves what their safety is worth.

That same principle applies equally well to waiters and bartenders. Those who detest or fear tobacco smoke can find countless employers who will accommodate their preferences. Those who don't care are free to work in restaurants that tolerate smoking.

But tolerance doesn't count for much among anti-smoking activists, who think diversity goes too far when it shelters a noxious habit. Their approach is a reversal of the old Burger King slogan: Have it our way.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, and appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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