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St. Joseph County debates going smoke-free

Mary Kate Malone | Wednesday, September 7, 2005

It was standing room only in the St. Joseph County Council chambers Tuesday as residents took part in an intense debate over a proposed smoking ban that would outlaw lighting up in almost every public venue within the county limits.

The public forum allowed residents to voice their opinions to council members about the highly controversial issue that will likely be voted on this fall, council member Mark Root said.

“I’m just trying to get the facts [about the ordinance],” Root said. “I’ll go home, look through the information, but my opinion is not going to change tonight. It’s a long process.”

He said in his area 91 percent of residents support the smoking ban.

“I want to represent the community,” he said. “I’ve been doing what I can.”

Residents from the health care industry defended the ban – citing secondhand smoke as the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States.

But several Michiana bar and restaurant owners said the ordinance would not only hurt their businesses, but also infringe on their rights.

“The greater issue is freedom; I dispute the definition of a public place in the ordinance,” said Ken Donnelly, a St. Joseph County resident and restaurant owner. “A restaurant or bar is private property. Joe’s bar belongs to Joe. Let’s go for freedom, that’s the American way.”

If passed, the ordinance would ban smoking in nearly every indoor facility in St. Joseph County.

At Notre Dame, smoking is already prohibited in all buildings, stadiums and University-owned vehicles. Should this ordinance pass, smoking would be outlawed nearly everywhere at the University – from construction sites to bus stops to dorm courtyards.

Popular student bars like Corby’s and the Linebacker – which allow anyone over the age of 18 to smoke in the facility – would be exempt from the ordinance, but restaurants would be subject to its provisions.

Hospital executives brought overhead slides to the forum as proof of smoking’s harmful effects.

“As CEO of a large organization that is smoke-free, the greatest job we have is to role model the behaviors we want to see in our community,” said C.E.O. of Memorial Hospital Philip Newbold.

“We need this ordinance to send a message and create an environment that supports Hoosiers.”

Mary Rice, a lifelong smoker and opponent of the ordinance, said her habit did not negatively affect her seven daughters as they grew up – six of whom were varsity athletes at Notre Dame.

“It is absurd to say that because someone smells a cigarette that they’re going to get lung cancer,” she said. “Let me tell you, let’s do the common sense thing and stop this almost complete Nazism that we’re seeing.”

The proposed ban comes after seven years of work on the part of the Healthy Communities Initiative – a group dedicated to making smoking a socially unacceptable behavior, said Amy Clifford, who spearheaded the project.

“The initiative is meant to reduce and prevent people from smoking in the first place. It’s a multi-faceted approach to the healthcare epidemic,” she said. “Quitting smoking is one of the most important things an individual can do to improve their health.”

The debate heated up when Notre Dame senior Patrick Kane took the stand.

“I need to make a decision of where I will live when I graduate. I have to tell you, I have a pretty easy decision to make – why live in an area where my health takes a backseat to nicotine addicts?” he said. “Let’s pass this ordinance and get this community out of the lists of one of the worst places to live in America.”

Sports bar owner Rocco Zappia, who says his livelihood depends on the success of his business, spoke out after Kane was finished.

“This guy [Kane] wants to blow his horn, woop dee doo,” Zappia said. “He’s marketing major – until he owns his own business he doesn’t know. We [restaurant and bar owners] are just trying to make a living.”

As of January 2004, five states – California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine and New York – and 72 municipalities in the United States had passed laws that prohibit smoking in almost all workplaces, restaurants, and bars, according to the Centers for Disease Control.