Street Smart Chicago

NYE 2007/Smoked Out: The hour Chicago gives up puffing

City Life, Holidays Add comments

Be afraid, Chicago. Fear the law. Thinking of taking a few extra puffs of your cigarette as you celebrate past midnight this New Year’s Eve in your favorite bar? Then be prepared to taste blood on your palate as the city’s stormtroopers, donned only in black, burst through the doors, using their high-tech, Orwellian machinery to incite terror and to shut down your favorite adult establishment.

Or just enjoy your evening, because chances are nobody is going to bust you for lighting up indoors in the first few hours of Illinois’ comprehensive smoking ban. While Timothy Hadac, spokesperson for Chicago Department of Health, won’t rule out any citations on the morning of January 1, 2008, he admits, “we’re not poised to be the smoking police on New Year’s.” Hadac says “the details are still being worked out” as to how exactly the ban will be enforced, but that health inspectors won’t be out patrolling the neighborhoods or raiding anything on Rush Street in search of illegal secondhand smoke. Still, the reality of the situation is no one seems to know for certain how the ban will be received, with the bar owners themselves being the most confused.

“All I know is people can’t smoke in my bar and they can’t smoke fifteen feet from my door,” says Mike Miller, owner of Delilah’s, 2771 North Lincoln. As a nonsmoker, Miller isn’t necessarily opposed to a smoking ban, but feels the state hasn’t closely evaluated the impact the ban will have. He especially feels the state neglected to consider the environmental damage the ban could have when thousands of smokers stop depositing their cigarette butts into an ashtray and start throwing them into the snow, streets, mailboxes, etc. “We did some math one night,” Miller says. “We estimated [the ban] will put 1.4 billion cigarettes on the street per year. Instead of going into a garbage can, they’re going out into the streets. What kind of environmental impact will that have?”

Despite the concerns, Miller says he will comply with the new law as best he can, to the extent of asking his patrons to cut the smoking at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s. Mary-Ann Reid, owner of Gold Star Bar, 1755 West Division, is leaning toward permitting smoking for the rest of the night, believing her customers and the government will show some leniency and allow New Year’s to pass before they start cracking down.

“We don’t know what to expect,” Reid says, adding that the bar will give away their ashtrays on New Year’s. “We’re somewhat in favor of it. I know it’s politically incorrect for a bartender to say that.” For all the extra revenue tobacco likely contributed to her business, Reid maintains she’s in favor of the ban for a simple, primitive reason: she’s not a fan of death. “The bartenders are all having trouble breathing,” she says. “So we decided we’d rather go out of business than die of cancer.”

There are other concerns, however, as to how the ban will be interpreted by the proper authorities. Miller wonders if he’ll still be fined if a few rebellious smokers light up despite his bar’s best intentions. “I just don’t want to be punished for the actions of other people,” he says. “If I walk into City Hall and light up a cigarette, is the mayor going to get a ticket? … If somebody is smoking in our bathroom, what am I going to do? Beat the door down?”

So who could get fined? “It all depends on the situation,” Hadac says. “We’ve seen different cases [under the current smoking ban]. A patron will light up and the restaurant will say, ‘You can’t do that anymore.’ The owner will actually pick up the phone, call us and say, ‘Don’t blame me for this.’” Fines range from $100 to $250 for an individual who violates the ban and $250 to $2,500 for the place of employment. But Hadac says that under the current Chicago ban, the department writes few—if any—citations as they rely on complaints and tips from citizens to enforce the law.

“On average, it may be zero [citations per week],” he says. “We write very, very, very few. The compliance is just extraordinary.” (Andy Seifert)

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