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NORMAL The debate continues to be a hot one. A spirited public discussion on proposed public smoking bans in the Twin Cities drew about 170 people Monday night to the Normal Theater. Both Bloomington and Normal council members are expected to vote on the issue, possibly as early as spring.

The town hall meeting included six panel members, who began with brief opening remarks. Included were Tom Hubbard, owner of Cheeks Bar & Grill, Bloomington; Steve Riedl, executive director of the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association; Mary Strack, president of the Downtown Business Association, Normal; Dr. Chae Chu, a Twin Cities pulmonologist at the Illinois Heart and Lung Association; John Schmitt, owner of Ned Kelly's Steakhouse, Bloomington; and Kathy Drea, director of public policy, American Lung Association of Illinois.

There was no consensus among the audience, which included business owners, university students and community residents. A constant stream of many dozens of the crowd commented or asked questions of the panelists during the 1½ hour meeting.

Their time was limited to a minute so as many people as possible could speak.

Riedel repeatedly emphasized that the government had established no safe levels of exposure for secondhand smoke. Once that exists, he said, "we can address that with technology in the hospitality industry."

Drea countered secondhand smoke is toxic.

"We want to protect people day in and day out," she said.

She said people who are bartenders or work in other places where customers smoke should have the same rights as those who work in smoke-free offices. She said all equipment comes with disclaimers because while it takes the smoke out of the air, the toxins remain. "Medically, I'm biased," said Chu. "I'm biased towards health."

He said there are numerous studies showing the diseases caused by secondhand smoke. He also explained while death certificates list a disease as a cause, but not its source, secondhand smoke is never listed.

A smoking ban would take away a large part of his customer base, said Hubbard. He also cited the value of freedom of choice in America. A smoking ban would drive businesses to other communities, added Riedel.

"How do you feel about being able to operate as you see fit?" Bob Groetken, owner of Schooners in Bloomington, asked the panel.

Schmitt, whose steakhouse went smoke-free Feb. 1, 2005, replied, "I think it's about affecting innocent people."

Stack, who is a nonsmoker and owns three Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches restaurants, said her franchise is smoke-free. She represented downtown Normal's business association. At a recent meeting attended by about a dozen businesses, she said there was an overwhelming consensus.

"Individual businesses should decide whether to allow smoking," Stack said.

The event was moderated by WJBC Radio and sponsored by the theater and Commerce Bank.

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