The facts support a smoke-free Oak Park

Opinion

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As readers of this newspaper know, the Oak Park Village Board is leaning against passing a clean air ordinance because of concern about its potential economic impact. The village board appears to have been spooked by restaurant owners' concerns that an ordinance preventing their patrons from smoking in a restaurant will cause them to go to another town's food emporiums. Although I thought people went to restaurants to eat, not to smoke, no one wants to do something that threatens the economic growth of our village. The fact is that this is a phony issue that a little homework would rapidly clarify. So, here is a homework assignment, whether you are in agreement with me or not. It won't take long to do, don't worry.

Go to the Internet and search under "clean indoor air ordinance economic impact." And I challenge you to find a single site or study that is identified and in the public domain that does not conclusively demonstrate that such ordinances have never had negative economic consequences. Never.

What you will find is the story we are playing out in Oak Park is the same one that has taken place in many towns across the country already. Whenever advocates of a healthy environment attempt to pass a local clean indoor air ordinance, their motivation is to protect the public and restaurant workers from the toxins in secondhand tobacco smoke. The strong scientific evidence is that secondhand smoke causes heart attacks, cancer, sudden infant death, asthma, and a variety of other health problems, not to mention that it is irritating to other diners. These advocates approach their town or city council to act in the public interest. Everyone involved is ready to pass the ordinance until a concerned restaurant association attempts to change the subject from the health issue to claims that the result will be an economic catastrophe.

If you do this homework, you will discover that business schools won't even study this issue any more. After a landmark study demonstrating that smoke-free restaurant ordinances had no effect on restaurant revenues in the first 15 cities to pass such ordinances, the tobacco industry's claims lost credibility. In contrast to such claims by the tobacco industry, smoke-free restaurant ordinances have had no impact on revenues in over 500 communities.

The facts you will find in your homework assignment, if you choose to follow through, is there are now published data on the economic impact of smoking restrictions on restaurant sales for dozens of localities in many states. While there are some differences in the ordinances, when the studies have relied on objective sales tax data to assess economic impact, it turns out there is none. The sales tax data has consistently demonstrated that ordinances restricting smoking in restaurants have had no effect on restaurant revenues or tax receipts.

Everyone can cite studies to their advantage. Why are these studies the ones to believe? First, and most important, the data are objective. Tax authorities collect the data with no particular interest in the impact of a clean indoor air ordinance. Second, they are complete and include all restaurants in an economic region. Third, the data is acquired over a period time, so underlying economic trends or seasonal variability can be taken into account. On the other hand, the problem with studies dealing with the economic impact of clean indoor air ordinances is that they are retrospective; in other words, they are unavailable until several years after an ordinance passes. Thus, when confronted with predictions of economic gloom, only evidence from other similar towns can be cited. The appropriate response to such predictions from the tobacco industry and its allies in the restaurant association is to point out that these same exact claims have been made everywhere else and, when the objective data became available a year or two later, they turned out to be wrong in every case.

Faced with the growing evidence that restaurant ordinances do not affect revenues, the tobacco industry has developed a series of secondary claims: that the public will not comply with the ordinance or that it will hurt employment or tourism. Other published studies demonstrate that these claims too are specious. As has been demonstrated in many other towns like ours, the public supports and complies with these ordinances. They want their local representatives to pass these ordinances. They want to be protected. Voluntary compliance with these ordinances is extremely high in both restaurants and bars. And the sales tax revenues do not decrease.

The reason the tobacco industry opposes these ordinances is that the creation of smoke-free workplaces and restaurants sends the message that smoking around other people is not socially acceptable. Creating a smoke-free milieu reduces cigarette consumption. A smoke-free social environment will help people quit smoking and reduce tobacco industry sales and profits. And not affect local sales tax or restaurant revenues. So, is this an anti-smoking ordinance? No! If you choose to smoke, I might question your judgment, but not your right to do so. Tobacco is indeed a legal substance. But, if you light your cigarette and blow smoke into my face, or those of my children, then you are trampling on my rights. And over 80 percent of Oak Parkers want you to stop it, according to a recent local survey that was reported in this newspaper.

We hear restaurants ought to be able to choose what its customers want without interference from the government. The restaurant owners say that they know their customers. I agree. And in this family-oriented village that we are so proud of living in, how do our restaurants market themselves? Many advertisements in this newspaper from local restaurants tout their heart-healthy eating choices and child-friendly environment, including many of those whose owners have publicly staked out opposing views on an economic basis. When the owners of these restaurants say they will go out of business if forced to go smoke-free, I can only say that if they accommodated non-smokers in their main dining room rather than in the basement or in a separate room far away from the main crowd, as some of these restaurants do, they would have increased business from the vast majority of Oak Parkers who do not smoke. Studies show that 75-80 percent of American adults do not smoke; I have never heard of an industry that caters to the minority of their customer base and places the majority group in inferior surroundings.

Is Oak Park an economic island? No, of course not, but smart advertising would likely give us a substantial competitive advantage compared to our neighbors. The survey showed that the majority of residents in our surrounding towns would be more apt to travel here if our restaurants were smoke-free.

Isn't this really a state issue? No! The state has given us the opportunity to decide this matter for ourselves as a matter of law. We would not for a moment ask our village trustees to let the state decide on how we fund our schools, plan our downtown district, or clean up polluted parks. The village board should have the courage to take a stand, one way or the other, and then let the judgment of the majority of the people who vote for them determine if we agree with their choice. When the residents of this village understand that a smoke free ordinance with important health consequences for them and their children was opposed by claims of a catastrophic economic impact that has never occurred anywhere else, an inarguable fact that is a matter of public record accessible to all on the Internet, we'll see what the voters' judgment is.

There is now evidence from so many cities of varying location, size, and demographics that the question of whether clean indoor air ordinances affect restaurant revenues adversely has been considered closed for years. Local officials should protect the public, who overwhelmingly support this ordinance, from the toxins in secondhand smoke.

In summary, I respectfully ask the readers of this paper, and our representatives in local government, to do the homework, not make an emotional decision based on phony claims concocted by perhaps the most nefarious industry in our society, and then do what is in the public interest.

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