There are three issues regarding a ban on smoking in public places: public health, civil rights, and economic development. No specific conclusions on the first two are necessary in order to see what is best for Oak Park?#34;just consider the economic impact and the wisest choice becomes obvious.
Evaluations of public health impacts (such as of secondhand smoke) are best made by those qualified to sort through and understand peer-reviewed science. I certainly hope that the Board of Health's conclusion on that is not going to be based on public-hearing testimony or letters to the editor. That would be akin to my family doctor basing his diagnosis on a poll of the waiting room.
There is no civil rights issue here, since no one is proposing to ban smoking in private spaces such as homes or cars (something I and many other nonsmokers would strongly oppose). Our civil society is well grounded in the idea that none of us have a personal right to impose our choices on others, even unintentionally. Hence we don't allow people to drive drunk, or open a junkyard in the middle of a residential street, or do myriad other things which would be valid personal choices if they weren't imposing significant impacts or risks upon innocent bystanders.
Debate has focused on whether the degree of harm from secondhand smoke is enough to justify absorbing economic harm to eliminate it. Restaurant owners speak of "choice" as the core issue, saying that a public smoking ban in Oak Park would cause legions of restaurant-goers and restaurant employees to choose to go elsewhere.
It's natural for busy business owners to see only the customers already before them, but they have assessed the situation precisely backwards. Actually?#34;as numerous suburban and urban communities around the country have demonstrated with public smoking bans?#34;Oak Park's location makes a public smoking ban a new competitive advantage.
Choice cuts both ways: people who dislike eating near smokers can travel to Oak Park just as easily as smokers can travel away.
There are in the United States in 2005 more of the former than of the latter, and with each generation smoking rates continue their steady decline. So which group is more important to the long-term success of Oak Park's restaurants?
Since more and more people with disposable income are eager to avoid spending it near smokers, the economically rational choice is to become an attractive destination that meets their desire.
Oak Park would add to its net attractiveness for restaurant goers, especially for spur-of-the-moment outings, if those folks knew that they wouldn't have to worry about whether the particular place they walked into would include smokers.
Now it's no use trying to sell an attractive new amenity without making people aware of it in a crowded marketplace. Oak Park's business community need not bear all the burden of such a major new change in our strategy to attract business?#34;that would be unwise and unreasonable.
The smartest choice would be for the village to put in place a public smoking ban, and then trumpet the fact! Put some village time and effort into publicizing Oak Park's new amenity throughout western Cook County. A couple of billboards along the Ike, some local radio commercials, some media-relations effort by village staff, etc. A few tens of thousands of dollars would be tax money well-spent (and quickly recovered from increased sales-tax revenues), as residents of towns all around us learned to their delight that Oak Park was now the place to find lots of good restaurants and never have to worry about smelling cigarette smoke.
For the immediate and lasting economic benefit of Oak Park, the village board should both ban smoking in public places and help our business community brag about it. And do it sooner rather than later, before one of our neighbor communities does the math and beats us to it.