From Chicago Tribune
By Angie Leventis Lourgos and Jackie Bange
November 25, 2009
"The air was hazy and the ashtrays were full on a recent night at the Crowbar Inc. tavern on the Southeast Side, despite Illinois’ nearly 2-year-old indoor smoking ban.
Patrons say they like it that way. They’re even willing to pay a little extra to light up.
Owner Pat Carroll said his customers – smokers and nonsmokers alike – contribute to a “smoking fund” canister that often sits on the bar, to subsidize the fines he’s incurred for flouting the law.
Carroll said he’s been ticketed twice and paid at least $680. He fears that if he forbids smoking, his cigar-and-cigarette crowd would switch to bars that permit smoking just a few blocks away in Indiana.
“So guess what, everybody can smoke in here,” he said, fingering a lit cigarette balanced on an ashtray. “I’m not losing my customers.”
The Tribune and WGN-TV found patrons smoking at several Chicagoland bars, defying the Smoke-free Illinois Act that has prohibited smoking inside public places since Jan. 1, 2008.
Bar patrons and owners seen smoking indoors had varying explanations for ignoring the law. At Boem Restaurant in Albany Park, where one visit found the room filled with smoke, the bar’s owner said the place was booked for a private party, which exempted it from the law. But it doesn’t, officials say.
The public can lodge complaints against establishments that skirt the law, triggering a site inspection. Violators face fines that can grow steeper with each infraction, starting at $250 for a business and $100 for an individual smoker.
“We think it would become very expensive to continue to rack up fines,” said Kelly Jakubek, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health. “That would become very burdensome.”
Health officials say smoking-ban scofflaws are the exception and that indoor smoking in public has drastically decreased over the last two years. Jakubek added that she hopes Indiana and other states that allow indoor smoking in public places pass a ban similar to the one in Illinois, evening the field for competitive business owners such as Carroll.
“There are always some bad apples out there who will try to get around the law,” said Tim Hadac, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Public Health. “If you look at the big picture, compliance is widespread.”
For example, in Chicago, which has its own smoking ban similar to the state law, an accused violator gets several warning letters, then an inspection. Last year, there were 603 complaints and 24 inspections, which led to nine tickets. So far this year, those numbers were down to 286 complaints and 18 inspections, resulting in four tickets, Hadac said.
He said data showed warning letters generally spurred compliance.
Soon “it will be as socially unacceptable and even unthinkable to smoke in a bar or restaurant as it currently is in a movie theater,” he said in an e-mail.
Katie Lorenz of the American Lung Association in Greater Chicago said she was disappointed that some bars weren’t complying; she added that the secondhand smoke harms employees and non-smoking patrons. “This is a health issue, and it affects every single person who happens to be in the bar,” she said. “What’s in the best interest of everyone is to not inhale those toxic fumes.”
Sabrina Lockett, a veteran restaurant worker with asthma, said she lost a friend to cancer, and he didn’t smoke. She said she regretted that all bars don’t follow the law. “I wished it was passed sooner,” she said, saying the law may have saved her friend’s life.
But some smokers say they’ll support any tavern that gives them sanctuary. Laura Pugh said she contributes $5 a month to Crowbar’s smoking fund, considering it akin to membership fees at a private club. If she couldn’t smoke there, Pugh said she’d probably go to a bar in Indiana.
“I respect Illinois law,” she said. “However, I feel that if an Illinois bar wants to allow smoking, there should never be a problem if it’s willing to abide by the fine.”
Angie Leventis Lourgos is a Tribune reporter; Jackie Bange is a reporter for WGN-TV. firstname.lastname@example.org