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Thursday, June 5, 2003 02:20 pm

It can’t happen here

Chicago might forbid smoking in public places, but one state law insures that Springfield’s smokers can always share their habit.

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The smell of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls wafts enticingly inside Dagwood's Deli. Leaning against the restaurant's counter, owner Tim Spengler smiles and says, "Just by standing here I can tell you who smokes and who doesn't when they walk through that door."

Outside that door is where all the cigarettes are left. Spengler won't allow customers to smoke in his restaurant. He's even run an ad boasting of his smoke-free environment. He says diners appreciate eating in a place without cigarette smoke.

Spengler eats out a lot, and says Springfield has a few spots where you can have a decent breakfast. "Acceptable, that is," he equivocates. "But you always end up sitting next to someone who is smoking. It is impossible to eat at a place like that and not smell like an ashtray when you leave. Especially in the winter--it just gets into your clothes."

Smoking is commonplace in Springfield. Most restaurants have an ashtray on every table. Half-smoked butts litter the entryways to businesses. And if you get cancer in Sangamon County, chances are it will be lung cancer.

Statewide, there's a greater incidence of lung cancer than, say, breast or prostate cancer. But last year alone an estimated 170 new cases of lung and bronchus cancer were diagnosed in Sangamon County. Per capita, that's higher than the Chicago or St. Louis metropolitan areas. According to the American Cancer Society, our neighbor Christian County has the largest percentage of smokers in the state.

Officials in Chicago, Dallas, and Denver are debating bans on smoking in public places like restaurants. An anti-smoking law exists for the entire state of California. New York City has prohibited smoking in most restaurants since 1995 and plans to ban smoking in bars this March.

But don't expect the capital city to follow Chicago's lead. Springfield will never slap strict smoking bans on businesses. It can't.

In 1990 the General Assembly passed the Illinois Clean Indoor Air Act. The law bans smoking in public places, except for areas posted as smoking sections. Businesses are only required to have a sign in designated smoking areas. No ventilation measures, fans, partitions, or separation from nonsmoking sections are required.

The law does more (or less) than that: it also prohibits local municipalities from regulating or eliminating smoking in public places. That's just what the tobacco companies wanted--to keep regulations at the state level rather than face a multitude of bans. The only exceptions are 19 communities that passed smoking ordinances prior to October 1, 1989. These towns are mostly in the Chicago area, but Elgin, Champaign, Urbana, and Joliet also got under the wire.

Needless to say, Springfield remains a wide-open town.

Janet Williams, spokesperson for the Illinois Coalition Against Tobacco, says her organization helped to draft the Clean Indoor Air Act, but "screwed up" due to a lack of knowledge about legislative terminology. She says her group just wanted something on the books to protect people from second-hand smoke, and it allowed language into the law that prohibited local communities from passing stronger smoke-free ordinances. Williams says the coalition assumed that if changes needed to be made later on these could be enacted easily. Now the Illinois Coalition Against Tobacco has spent the last 11 years fighting a law they originally help to write.

"We want to reverse the pre-emptive language," Williams says. "We want every municipality to have the right to pass stricter laws governing their smoke-free environments. We did not know what we know now, and we were terribly naive."

The state law also allows some public places to be excluded from the requirements. Williams says that was her group's second mistake. The Illinois Clean Indoor Air Act does not regulate bowling alleys, bars, rented rooms, hotel rooms, private offices occupied exclusively by smokers, rooms or halls used for private social functions, factories, warehouses, or places of work not usually frequented by the general public.

Representative Jack McGuire, a Democrat from Joliet, introduced a bill last year to allow communities to enforce their own smoking ordinances. While his measure passed the House, it died in the Senate.

"We were not trying to re-invent the wheel here," McGuire says. "We just wanted to expand the law. I'm not a crusader: we just don't want people dying from second-hand smoke, and we know it's a factual truth that second-hand smoke causes cancer."

McGuire says the bill died because powerful Republicans opposed it. "I spoke with a Republican sponsor about the bill, and he said, 'You know how we are about smoking over here,' " McGuire says. "I didn't know what that meant at the time, but I guess now it meant that it wouldn't get passed."

This year McGuire plans to re-introduce a measure to amend the Illinois Clean Indoor Air Act and says he has already been approached by several representatives wanting to sign on.

Kathy Drea, director of public policy for the American Lung Association, hopes the Democratic takeover of the statehouse will improve McGuire's chances. "For the last ten years the Senate hasn't done anything," she says, "but now we have a new Senate."

Springfield has issued 802 food service licenses, which cover everything from gas stations to bars, but the Illinois Department of Public Health lists only 82 restaurants here as smoke-free. Dagwood Deli's Spengler says he would support a smoking ban in Springfield, but only if it was restricted to places that serve food.

"You can't pick on bars," he says. "There are civil rights involved there. I think bars are a place for smokers to go. You're not going to a bar for your health. My God, a little smoke isn't going to hurt you if you are going to go to a bar."

Stopping the habit is tough enough, but finding a support group for Springfield smokers wishing to quit is a difficult task in itself. The only active support group Illinois Times could find is at Memorial Medical Center. Open to the public and offered free of charge, the group meets at 5 p.m. on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month in the Cardinal Conference Room. Joni Colle, who oversees the program, says only a handful of people attends each meeting. "On a good night," she says, ten people may show up. St. John's Hospital no longer offers smoking cessation classes.

There are other methods to help smokers kick the habit--ranging from nicotine patches to chewing gum--but most cost money. Susan Cassiday, an insurance agent for R.W. Troxell & Co., says none of the insurance policies she offers for small businesses covers expenses to help people stop smoking.

Illinois does have a toll-free QuitLine, which provides support and suggestions from "trained medical personnel." The program costs about $1 million annually. But when Illinois Times called the number, we waited on hold for 20 minutes before we were finally forced to leave contact information on voicemail.

Illinois Department of Public Health spokesperson Conny Moody was surprised to hear about the long delay and lack of support staff. She says a quick response is important. Whenever the hotline is advertised, Moody says, at least 50 to 100 people will call. The numbers vary greatly. In November 166 different users phoned the hotline, but in August more than 1,000 people called for information. The QuitLine number is 866-QUIT YES (866-784-8937).

In desperation, some people turn to hypnosis. Springfield hypnotherapists charge anywhere from $95 to $350 for a two-hour session, and they claim a 60 to 75 percent success rate. Most doctors would still urge smokers to simply summon their willpower.

Spengler says he doesn't have anything against smokers--he just prefers to have the choice of not being exposed to smoke when eating or in public places.

"A lot of people I care for have been smokers, including my grandfather and favorite uncle," he says. "I don't know if they did any damage to me from their second-hand smoke, but who knows? I'm not dead yet."

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