CHAMPAIGN – As the noon hour grew closer on a recent day, the lunch crowd at Taffies Restaurant in west Champaign got larger.
And the air in the restaurant got a little smokier.
While 115 restaurants in Champaign have gone completely smoke-free in recent years, a majority of the city's roughly 280 food-service establishments, including Taffies, 301 S. Mattis Ave., still allow smoking.
That could change soon, however.
A controversial proposal to be considered by the Champaign City Council at 7 p.m. Tuesday in study session would require all restaurants in the city that don't hold a Class A (bar) liquor license to ban smoking.
At Taffies this past Thursday, several tables in the front room were populated by cigarette smokers. A large back room in the restaurant, which has a separate ventilation system, was smoke-free.
Restaurant owner Stacy Pomonis, a nonsmoker, wants to keep things the way they are. Pomonis said the proposal to ban smoking at restaurants – but to continue to allow it at bars, many of which serve food – is a "bad, bad proposal."
"I have a competitor down the street that's a bar," Pomonis said. "He's opening for breakfast if this passes. What do I have to do, have a bar?"
Interviews with patrons show many agree with him, while many others do not.
"I don't think a ban should be imposed on everybody," said Bob Patterson Sr. of Urbana, who has smoked for 52 years. "I think it should be based on the restaurant owner's decision."
At a nearby table, where all three patrons are smoking, Tina Moore of Monticello states bluntly: "If we can't smoke, we don't eat there."
But other opinions are just as vehement.
Mike Pettyjohn of Urbana is smoking at a table with two other fellow smokers. But, ironically, he wants city restaurants to go smoke-free.
"I agree with it," he said. "I quit, started back up and I want to quit again."
Taffies waitress Kerry Demanes wants to work in a smoke-free environment.
"Second-hand smoke kills," said Demanes, a waitress at Taffies since 1989. "I used to be a smoker and made a conscious effort to quit smoking. My children were on me about it. If I make that effort, I don't want to be surrounded by it at work."
Expect the arguments heard at Taffies to be repeated, in various forms, at what promises to be a lengthy and emotional city council meeting. The meeting will be held in council chambers at the Champaign City Building, 102 N. Neil St.
The CU Smokefree Alliance has pushed the issue with the city, originally asking that the city council hold a study session to consider making all public places smoke-free, including bars, restaurants and workplaces.
When that proposal could not get five city council signatures to hold a study session last June, a scaled-back proposal to consider just banning smoking in city restaurants was circulated by council member Tom Bruno and gained the signatures of Ken Pirok, Giraldo Rosales, Gina Jackson, Kathy Ennen and Bruno, just enough to force a study session.
Bruno said he isn't certain how he'll vote at this point.
"It's a classic question about what's the appropriate amount of governmental regulation, and what duty does government have to provide safety for the public and workers in restaurants?" Bruno said.
Scott Hays, president of the CU Smokefree Alliance, said his organization favors as comprehensive a smoking ban as possible, but would settle for a restaurant ban.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimates that 3,000 Americans die annually from lung cancer and as many as 35,000 from coronary heart disease as a result of exposure to second-hand smoke.
Second-hand smoke contains 43 different compounds that are known to be carcinogens, Hays said. "In 1998, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classified second-hand smoke as a Class A carcinogen," he said. "That's a known carcinogen in humans, such as asbestos."
The nonprofit group has collected more than 4,000 petition signatures of people who favor smoke-free public places and workplaces. They've also provided postcards that more than 2,000 people have signed and mailed to their council members asking for a smoking ban.
The CU Smokefree Alliance has convinced a similar-minded group, the Illinois Lung Association, to run large newspaper ads supporting a smoking ban, including one ad where a waitress who doesn't smoke describes how she developed Stage 4 throat cancer, possibly by working in a smoke-filled environment.
"We are expressing the viewpoints of a large majority of the community," said Matt Varble, director of communications for the smoke-free alliance. He said a November 2004 poll conducted for the organization showed 76 percent of Champaign-Urbana residents favored increased smoking restrictions.
"This does have popular community support," said Varble, who lost his attempt to unseat Vic McIntosh on the city council last spring.
Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart, a smoker, is among the leading opponents of a restaurant ban on smoking. Council members McIntosh and Michael La Due, who smoke, also have expressed opposition.
Schweighart said he expects petitions signed by about 1,500 people to be presented Tuesday opposing a restaurant smoking ban. "It's about choice," he said. "Right now, the restaurants have a right to allow smoking or to be nonsmoking. The citizens have a right to go to a smoking or nonsmoking restaurant."
Currently, by city ordinance, all restaurants must offer a nonsmoking section, but some places have gone completely nonsmoking.
Schweighart said the proposed restaurant smoking ban is a half-hearted measure that would punish certain restaurants, in particular, smaller locally-owned restaurants like Sam's Cafe, Taffies Restaurant, Carmon's Restaurant and Merry-Ann's Diner. Those places could lose customers to nearby bars that offer lunch and, in some cases, breakfast, and that would be able to continue to allow smoking, he said.
"If you're going to do it, you've got to do it across the board," the mayor said. "If you truly feel second-hand smoke is hazardous to health, then your obligation is to ban smoking."
To support only a partial ban is "to practice feel-good politics" and to pick on one industry, Schweighart said.
Varble noted that Schweighart rejected a study session that would have included examining banning smoking in bars and other public places.
"This is a perceived impact," Varble said. "Most people go to restaurants for the food, service and atmosphere. Why wouldn't more people go to the restaurant because it is now smoke-free? I'm certainly more interested in going to Taffies if they're smoke-free."