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Smoking ban has stirred strong passions, but will soon fade, expert says

Jan Dennis, Business & Law Editor
217-333-0568; jdennis@illinois.edu

Scott Hays
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Political scientist Scott Hays says the fiery passions over the statewide smoking ban will likely blow over quickly once the new Illinois state law kicks in Jan. 1.

12/13/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A looming ban that will snuff out smoking in public places across Illinois lit up a fiery debate that rivaled abortion, gun control and society’s other hottest-button issues, a University of Illinois research scientist says.

“It’s very polarizing and hits on core elements of freedom and what it means to be free in this country,” said Scott Hays, a ban supporter who has studied the divisive proposal for nearly a decade. “It’s easy to understand, so everybody has an opinion. It’s complex when you dig into it, but it’s really simple on its face.”

But those smoldering passions will likely fade quickly once a new Illinois state law kicks in Jan. 1, making bars, restaurants, offices and other public places smoke-free, said Hays, of the Center for Prevention Research and Development in the university’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

“It becomes part of the culture so fast, “ said Hays, a political scientist who studies laws regulating alcohol and tobacco. “In a year, we Illinois people are going to be absolute snobs when we go out of state where it’s not smoke-free. Years from now, people will scratch their heads and wonder why we didn’t do it sooner.”

Hays says he questioned whether the marketplace – not government – should regulate indoor smoking when he first began looking into the issue in 1998.

He was later swayed by medical research on the hazards of second-hand smoke that he says outweigh both smokers’ rights and the risk of government stepping too far into the operation of private businesses.

“You’ve completely and utterly eliminated second-hand smoke just by saying ‘Don’t smoke inside.’ It doesn’t require a hazardous materials crew to come in and scrape off the asbestos.”

“You’ve got a serious problem and an easy solution. You don’t often find that kind of match,” said Hays, who led a group that lobbied for smoke-free ordinances that took effect earlier this year in Champaign and Urbana.

Hays discounts surveys that argue smoking bans slash business by up to 40 percent at bar and restaurants, saying a review of sales-tax data shows revenues held steady or increased after bans were enacted in Champaign, Springfield and other cities.

“Smokers aren’t going to leave permanently if your establishment has anything else to offer – darts, karaoke. They’re really going to just sit in their garage? They might do it for a week or two, but they’re going to be back to their favorite haunts because they like the bartender, the music or whatever,” Hays said.

Illinois is among 22 states that have enacted laws that outlaw smoking in bars and restaurant. Hays doubts a national ban will follow, saying the national tobacco lobby is too strong.

But he says bans are making smoking less socially acceptable. He hopes that discourages children from picking up the habit, along with protecting workers in once smoke-filled bars, restaurants and offices.

“If you change the culture so you see smokers huddling outside looking sort of pathetic in the winter, kids might say ‘Well, that doesn’t look all that sexy,’ ” Hays said.

Editor’s note: To contact Scott Hays, call 217-244-2616; e-mail sphays@illinois.edu.