A matter of choice

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 3, 2002

It's an issue that can be hotter than a smoldering ash. Words like freedom, choice and rights are evoked on this controversial subject.

But if a smoking ban ever comes to fruition in Austin, would it be received, or reviled?

It depends who you ask.

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Margene Gunderson says the dangers of secondhand tobacco smoke are plain and simple.

"In Minnesota, secondhand smoke is lined to 60 deaths a year from lung cancer, 1,000 deaths a year from heart disease and 30 to 50 deaths a year from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome)."

Gunderson, the director of community health service with the Mower County Public Health Department, said it's clear that secondhand smoke causes health problems, especially in buildings that allow smoking.

"Secondhand smoke causes 50,000 to 60,000 deaths a year and, in adults, is the third cause of preventable death in the United States," Gunderson said. "Smoking is the No. 1 cause of preventable death."

However, some in Austin say it's not right to outlaw smoking in some buildings -- specifically restaurants.

Just ask Sandy Forstner, the executive director at the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce.

"Businesses do not want to exclude potential customers," he said. "They want to attract as many customers as they can. It's how they grow. A portion of our community and country smokes. Who wouldn't want to do business with those people, just because they smoke?"

So how did this community suddenly become at odds with this issue?

A time really hasn't been pinpointed, Gunderson said. But the idea of a smoking ban started in Austin "way back when some youth went to a city council meeting to ask tobacco retailers to move tobacco advertising from eye level."

However, Gunderson said the main issue isn't to push for a smoking ban, but rather to inform residents of the issue.

"We don't want people to think we're just proposing this smoking ban out of the blue," Gunderson said. "There's no proposal that's been presented to the city council and it's too early to even start thinking about that.

"We need to educate people first. How can you propose something banning secondhand smoke when you don't even know what it is?"