Food columnist takes on smokers' "rights" to light up in restaurants.

Several years ago, I received a phone call from an elderly woman suffering from lung problems. She had had one lung removed and the other was failing. I remember how labored her breathing was and how difficult it was for her to talk.


She phoned after I had written a column in favor of smoke-free restaurants. Although she never smoked, she had worked as a waitress for many decades at a number of smoky restaurants and supper clubs. Her reason for calling was to thank me for the column. She said she had no doubt her medical problems were caused by years of inhaling secondhand smoke.


I don’t remember the woman’s name, but I think of that call often, especially now, as Illinois prepares to go smoke-free.


A glance at the editorial page of most newspapers reveals the deep offense that a segment of the population takes toward smoking bans. The letters to the editor generally talk about smokers’ rights and how they are being eroded. I understand the emotion underlying the argument, but I take issue with the reasoning.


When it comes to shared space, no one has a "right" to pollute it -- with noise, with garbage or with smoke or any other irritant. We all live in tight quarters. Sharing space demands courtesy.


I’ve also heard the argument that because smoking is a legal activity, smokers should be able to light up wherever they want. Lots of practices that are legal in your home are illegal in a business.


If you want to store a fresh turkey in your cupboard, for example, no police officer will come to your home with an arrest warrant. But if a restaurant doesn’t properly refrigerate poultry, it would be breaking the law and could lose its operating license.


The Illinois Department of Public Health’s Food Service Sanitation Code places hundreds of restrictions on restaurants, thankfully.


It says the guy behind the counter can’t dig into the icemaker with his bare hands, give you dirty silverware, thaw ground beef on the counter, put uncovered leftovers in the fridge or spit on your pizza, heaven forbid. Though unsanitary, these activities are not illegal in your own kitchen.


Food establishments must operate under a higher standard because of the risk of making many people sick, including their employees. It seems to me that requiring clean air is included among these health and safety precautions.


Finally, smoking doesn’t belong in restaurants because of the aesthetics. Smoky air and prepared food just don’t mix.


Granted, hot dogs and s’mores taste pretty good when they’re cooked over a campfire. Even a few wisps of smoke don’t ruin the ambiance. But the aroma of cigarette smoke does not enhance the pleasure of consuming a plate of beef stroganoff or shrimp scampi. Smoke deadens the senses and makes it difficult to appreciate nuances of flavor.


In effect, cigarette smoke in restaurants diminishes the skillful work of chefs. And it might make them sick as well.


 


Kathryn Rem can be reached at 788-1520 or kathryn.rem@sj-r.com.