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Year-old smoking ban still irks Ill. casinos, bars

Jan 3, 2009 11:21 PM
Staff & Wire Reports |

Walt Karstens stood inside his 74-year-old wood-frame bar in Moline counting his customers, and the empty seats he says would have been filled a year ago.

About a dozen regulars had checked in at Casey's Tavern by late afternoon on New Year's Eve, roughly half the number the 60-year-old Karstens says he could have expected before the state banned smoking in public places a year ago.

"It's terrible," Karstens said of the Smoke-Free Illinois Act, which he blames for the loss of about a fifth of his business. "It's the worst thing that could happen to a neighborhood saloon."

In the year since the new law kicked in, many bar owners say they've lost business, while casinos blame a drop in business on the ban and local governments that depend on gambling-tax revenue say they're sharing in the pain.

But the complaints aren't universal. Some bar owners say they've survived and even thrived since the ban, and organizations that pushed for it say the first year has been a success.

"I think it went exceptionally well," said Kathy Drea, the director of public policy for the American Lung Association. "We've heard from so many people that are now working in smoke-free work places and what a difference it's made in their lives. They just feel better."

Effective Jan. 1, 2008, the measure outlawed smoking in public places and within 15 feet of their exterior doors and windows. People and establishments that violate the law face fines of up to $250.

From the beginning, bars and casinos complained they would be hurt, while some prosecutors and police contended the law lacked details about how it should be enforced and how people cited for violations can appeal.

Those legal questions remain, Drea said.

The General Assembly's Joint Committee on Administrative Rules has never approved rules for enforcing the law, something the American Lung Association and others hope will be addressed through a Senate bill now awaiting action.

It also isn't clear how widely the ban is being enforced.

The Illinois Department of Health received about 5,500 complaints in 2008 about smoking in bars, restaurants and other public places, spokeswoman Kelly Jakubek said. But that number doesn't include complaints filed with county health departments and local law enforcement.

For the most part, Jakubek said, smokers and the businesses they frequent seem to be following the new law.

Two Joliet bar customers fined $231 each and sentenced in November to court supervision for lighting up in a bar are believed to be among the first found to have violated the law. Another Joliet resident pleaded guilty earlier this year to smoking in a bar and paid a $235 fine, while several other Will County cases are scheduled for court next year.

What is clear is that casino business is down since the ban started. Revenue at Illinois casinos dropped 20.2 percent between November 2007 and November 2008, according to the most recent figures available from the Illinois Gaming Board.

Several factors are to blame, among them the weak economy.

"But the majority of the decrease has been as a result of the smoking ban," said Tom Swoik, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association.

Swoik points out that casinos in Indiana, Missouri and Iowa -- neighboring states where smoking is legal in casinos -- saw nothing like Illinois' revenue drop, and he contends gamblers are leaving Illinois for casinos where they can smoke.

The American Lung Association's Drea disputes that. New casinos opened in those neighboring states over the past year, she said, which she believes accounts for their better fortunes.

And Illinois' sharp drop?

"Absolutely, I think it's the economy," she said. "The smoke-free law is insignificant."

Beyond the casinos, not all businesses affected by the new law say it's been a bad thing.

In Champaign, Toby Herges spent about $150,000 before the statewide ban kicked in on a heated, partially enclosed outdoor smoking area at his Tumble Inn bar, which opened in 1947.

"The whole idea was to just not lose the customers that we've had coming here for so many years," Herges said.

Instead, he said, he added customers who used to go to other bars, where they now have little choice in the winter but to stand outside in the wind and cold to light up.

It was 15 degrees and windy at Casey's in Moline on Wednesday afternoon. The deck Karstens built behind his bar doesn't do him or his smoking customers much good on a day like this, he said.

When the ban began, its backers predicted drinkers and gamblers who stayed away would be replaced by nonsmokers drawn to businesses where they could now breathe easier.

Karstens, whose great-grandfather opened Casey's during the Great Depression, says that never happened. Now, he figures he'll have to adapt by adding heat and some kind of enclosure to his deck to deal with a ban he said isn't like to go away.

"I don't think anything's going to change, not for a long time."