Sunday, December 30, 2007

East Side Bar Owners Brace for Worst As Smoking Ban Takes Effect - Smokers Threaten to Move Their Drinking to St. Louis' Ban-Free Bars

From Belleville News-Democrat:

For the News-Democrat

More than 70 percent of Illinois residents support a ban on smoking in restaurants and work places. But you'd never know it to hear the customers at Crehan's Irish Pub in Belleville.

Grumbling about the statewide ban on smoking in public places that begins Tuesday, some customers said they'll give up a favorite hangout before they give up a favorite habit.

"I'll go across the river," said David Rush, 64. A retired engineer, Rush patronizes Crehan's three or four days a week. But now he plans to take trips to Soulard or the Hill in St. Louis. Some Missouri municipalities have enacted smoking bans, but St. Louis city and St. Louis County have not.

"We've had people here say their friends are planning to come over here from Illinois and party," said Paula Young, the service manager at Hammerstone's in Soulard.

It's a reaction that has Crehan's owner, Barry Gregory, on edge these days.

"I'm much more nervous about it now than ever I have been," said Gregory who, at 54, staked his future on the success of the bar-restaurant at 5500 North Belt West.

"I invested my entire retirement in this facility," he said. "If this doesn't work out, you'll probably see me as a greeter at some local store somewhere."

Eddie Sholar, owner of Fast Eddie's Bon Air in Alton, already had plans to expand and, with passage of the Smoke-Free Illinois Act, began incorporating a large space especially for smokers.

"We like to say there's no smoking ban here," Sholar said.

Sholar described the additional 300-seat bar as "just a regular room that meets all the codes."

The Smoke-Free Illinois Act, slated to take effect Tuesday, has stirred up passions -- particularly among smokers. The law prohibits smoking in all public places, including restaurants, bars and clubs.

It is a response to the 2006 U.S. Surgeon General's report, which determined there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, and that even small amounts of exposure puts health at risk.

The state backed up the legislation with findings from its 2005 survey in which 72 percent of adults believed smoking should not be allowed in work areas. Nearly 73 percent supported a law for smoke-free restaurants.

The state also cited a 2006 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which calculated that nearly 80 percent of Illinoisans do not smoke. Compliance rates with other states that had previously enacted smoke-free laws, it found, were high.

Gregory serves as the area state vice president of the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association, which has lobbied steadily against a smoking ban because bars could go out of business.

The American Cancer Society, which supported the smoking ban, has heard similar arguments from business owners like Gregory before. As of 2007, 25 states have passed similar anti-smoking laws.

"We understand the way these establishments in the hospitality industry may feel, but there are more than 20 independent studies that say these laws have a neutral or positive effect on hospitality industries," said Dr. James Piephoff, the volunteer board president of American Cancer Society's metro-east chapter.

Gregory, his patrons and employees say the law is, at worst, an infringement on citizens' rights to determine their own behaviors.

"They're taking away your personal choice in trying to protect you," Gregory said. "It's been proven with prohibition that you can't legislate. ..." Rush finished Gregory's sentence. "Morality?" he said. "Right," Gregory answered.

Patrons at the Fairview Heights Memorial VFW 8677 and Ladies' Auxiliary on North Illinois Street in Fairview Heights tend to weigh in on smoking more as a fundamental right, one implied in the U.S. Constitution and now, imperiled.

"My dad served in World War II, my husband served in Vietnam and my son's been in the Army 15 years," said bar manager Ruth Ann Shellito.

"All of them served for our rights and freedoms, but they're constantly taking our freedoms away," she said, adding that plans to build a beer garden on the property are on hold, pending more information on the parameters of the new law.

Rosie Gwinn, president of the Ladies Auxiliary, quit smoking in 1999 after her mother, Carol Gwinn, suffered a heart attack. Returning to the smoky VFW was a challenge at first, but one she said she had to get past.

"If you want to be with your friends, you have to get over it," she said, adding that she smells smoke on her clothes when she gets home. "But here it doesn't bother me at all. People are going to smoke wherever you go."

However, the number of public places people can smoke in the country has declined. Between 1998 and 1999, 61 percent of adults in U.S. households polled by the National Cancer Institute for a tobacco use survey said smoking was not allowed at home. Sixty-eight percent said their workplaces did not allow smoking. By 2003, the numbers had grown to 74 percent and 77 percent, respectively.

Similarly, nearly 30 percent of U.S. households surveyed between 1998 and 1999 believed bars and cocktail lounges should be smoke-free. Three years later, that number grew to nearly 40 percent. Attitudes toward smoking have changed.

Case in point: John Pilkington. The 58-year-old father and grandfather exited St. Clair Square on Christmas Eve and promptly lit up. In his estimation, the more smoke-free environments lawmakers identify, the better.

"She's been after me for years to quit," nodding toward his daughter, Anne Amici, 37.

Local businesses don't have years, and owners must take steps now to turn people's habits -- at least in their establishments -- around. Ashtrays will vanish, no smoking signs will appear and some places, like Porter's Cigar Bar in Collinsville, will take on a whole new identity.

The swanky space has emptied its humidors in anticipation of the ban. After Tuesday, the venue will be known as Porter's Place, a jazz and blues venue.

"It's certainly not what we wanted, but we're trying to put our best face forward as a way to remarket Porter's," said general manager Tom Bruno. The business has partnered with the music department at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to acquire local talent.

While Bruno, like so many of his colleagues, tried to stall or seek exemption from the legislation, the ban's passage told him the time to fight was over.

"It's the law now," he said. "We want to be in compliance with the law."