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posted: 11/19/2012 5:00 AM

Editorial: A good goal on smoking, but bad legislation

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

State Sen. Dan Duffy's goal is noble enough: He doesn't want people who visit the Cancer Treatment Centers of America to have to smell cigarette smoke on health care workers employed there.

But not every noble idea stands up under scrutiny.

According to a story Thursday by State Government Writer Mike Riopell, the Lake Barrington Republican who just won re-election has been debating whether to ask lawmakers to override Gov. Quinn's veto of his plan to allow Cancer Treatment Centers of America to consider whether someone smokes in making hiring decisions. Or, more directly, to deny smokers the right to work there.

Duffy's legislation was focused tightly on the cancer treatment center because its reason to exist is to treat cancer patients. The law wouldn't have applied to hospitals and clinics and the like.

The House and Senate approved the measure earlier this year, but Quinn refused to sign it over the summer, noting "there are more extensive consequences which could have an impact on a citizen's right to privacy."

Smoking, without a doubt, is a scourge. Secondhand smoke alone kills about 50,000 people a year, according to the American Lung Association. And the state of Illinois has taken bold steps to slow its destruction. Besides not being able to pollute restaurants and other public places, smoking is even outlawed in casinos and bars. It's made life much more pleasant for nonsmokers. And it's a sensible law, because there is a real health threat to be in the presence of someone who is actively puffing.

Quinn's reason for vetoing the measure is somewhat vague, but that may be because there are so many potential pitfalls to this. Legislation, after all, sets precedent. And who knows what ripple effects this could have.

It would open a Pandora's box of authoritarian scenarios. Can a clinic that works with alcoholics require employees not to drink wine at home? Can a company involved with heart health tell employees what they can and can't eat on their own time? Can AAA require employees to buy cars with ABS or backup cameras?

It may sound ridiculous, but once you open the door to prohibition for the sake of protecting a customer's feelings, it's tough to close.

The answer is for companies to continue to educate their workers on the dangers of smoking and the financial benefits of keeping a company's insurance claim exposure low.

The people who know best that smoking is bad for you and everyone else are cancer patients.

Encountering a smoker is not so much likely to make a cancer patient feel discouraged, as Duffy suggests, but angry. And cancer patients can be real evangelists for heading down a healthier path. You'd think someone who sees the ravages of cancer on a daily basis would wise up on his own.

As sympathetic as we are to the intent behind Duffy's bill, it's not government's role.

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