NEWS

Smoke won't clear by New Year's

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

When Illinois' smoking ban takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1, 2008, how will it play out in Peoria?

Judging by the defiant attitude that has peppered local debate over the Legislature's decision, we bet smokers will whip out their cigarettes just before midnight and light up in rebellion. Don't hold your breath for any citizens arrests or fights between the nicotine-fitting and the nicotine-free when the clock strikes twelve.

Not that we expect police to start scribbling citations, at least immediately. It's New Year's, after all. Peoria's finest will be plenty busy keeping rowdy revelers in line. If state regulators were wise, they'd have allowed a holiday grace period for compliance. No one's health would be unduly compromised if the ban started Jan. 2.

The state itself needs a grace period to sort out nuances. As written, the "Smoke Free Illinois" act prohibits all types of puffing — cigarettes, cigars, pipes — inside workplaces and buildings open to the public, including bars, restaurants and casinos. Smoking is a no-no within 15 feet of entrances, windows and ventilation intakes. Fines for individuals range from $100 to $250; for businesses, $250 to $2,500.

Enforcement, however, remains murky. First, the Illinois Municipal League reports that local governments want to know who's responsible for busting and prosecuting violators. Rules from Illinois' Department of Public Health charge health departments and "local law enforcement agencies" with the task. Does that mean city police, county deputies, state's attorney's offices? The state needs to delineate a process.

Meantime, Peoria Police Chief Steven Settingsgaard says his department will process errant smokers through the state's attorney. Peoria County Sheriff Mike McCoy's department has set up a smoking complaint hotline at (866) 973-4646.

Second, businesses want a better explanation of liability. Restaurants in particular are troubled by the 15-feet requirement. Do drive-throughs count? What about outdoor patios where wait staffers seat guests? Furthermore, since the ban requires workplaces to post no-smoking signs at entrances and remove indoor ashtrays, could employers be fined for failing to do so? Can businesses with entrances on public sidewalks be liable for a smoker strolling close by?

Third, how can individuals contest their citations?

These and other rules have not been spelled out by an important legislative panel, which won't meet again until Jan. 9 — eight days after the ban starts.

As the state sorts out its mess, the city of Peoria should follow the lead of four dozen other communities, including Springfield and Bloomington-Normal, and pass a no-smoking ordinance of its own. That way, Peoria can capture all the money generated from fines instead of letting half go to the state. Unfortunately, on Monday the City Council made like Times Square and dropped the ball. The council should try again at its Jan. 8 meeting.

Come New Year's it's unrealistic to think the smoke will just clear. As 22 other states have learned, it takes time to change people's behavior. But behavior does change, as witnessed in numerous private-sector efforts — hospitals, eateries, workplaces — to ban puffing indoors. Ultimately, the growing momentum of voluntary bans likely would have rendered the state's interference unnecessary.

It is what it is now. We are a nation of laws, and we expect local communities to enforce the law, while toasting to cleaner air.