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Cities aren't the only ones who should have the power to regulate smoking in restaurants and bars. Counties should have that authority, too. And they will if state Sen. John Cullerton, D-Chicago, has his way.

His proposal, Senate Bill 2400, would allow counties to govern smoking themselves.

A new law that took effect Jan. 1 finally gave municipalities the power to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. It's a power they should have had all along.

The change has sparked spirited debates in many locales - including Bloomington-Normal.

Bar and restaurant owners opposed to a ban worry that smoking customers will go elsewhere, perhaps to establishments just outside the city limits.

But if counties are allowed to impose bans, too, that would eliminate that argument.

Only home-rule counties can regulate smoking under current law - and Cook County is the only home-rule county in the state. Such a distinction makes no sense.

Under Cullerton's proposal, a county board's smoking regulations would apply to all parts of the county, even incorporated cities and towns, unless the community already has a smoking ordinance or passes a law to reject the county's rules.

Smaller towns that otherwise might have sat on the sidelines will more likely look at the issue and what's best for their communities if faced with action at the county level.

McLean County Administrator John Zeunik said counties usually have such regulatory power only over unincorporated areas. If SB 2400 is approved, Zeunik expects someone on the County Board to propose smoking restrictions in McLean County.

The same arguments that favor a smoking ban in the Twin Cities would apply countywide. Smoking in bars and restaurants is a public health issue. Secondhand smoke affects patrons and employees. Some of those restaurant employees are too young to smoke legally, yet they are exposed to smoke in the workplace.

A coordinated effort between cities and counties would be possible if Cullerton's bill becomes law. By working together, they could eliminate situations where a business could move just beyond the limits of a city to avoid a smoking ban.

A bill in the Illinois House would ban smoking statewide.

Enacting broader bans city by city and county by county is a slower, but better approach. It lets smokers get used to the idea and builds momentum toward an eventual statewide ban - if that's what the majority of Illinoisans want.

When the Clean Indoor Air Act first banned smoking in most public places, it took time to get used to. Now, younger people find it hard to believe we once lit up in offices, stores and even teachers' lounges inside schools.

But, regardless of whether smokers want to accept it, times are changing. From state laws to company policies to business practices, restrictions on smoking are increasing. Passage of Cullerton's bill would be another step in that direction - the right direction.

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