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Sides form in smoking ban battle battle

DeKALB - With both sides getting help from outside organizations skilled at arguing their positions, the coming battle over banning smoking in all public places in DeKalb is just the latest front in a larger war. Meanwhile, thousands of city residents have reportedly signed petitions either in favor or against the ban, but there appears to be little support for the proposal from one of the main groups it is designed to protect - restaurant and bar workers. Jim Grosklags, the head of the DeKalb Smoke-Free Coalition, said that his group has gotten help from the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association, among others. Work leading up to the smoking ban proposal has been going on for more than two years. "We've relied heavily on them and of course they're all biased on this issue," he said. Much of the help has come in the form of resources showing the reported health and economic effects of smoking bans, and in the form of strategies for implementing them. The coalition also received a $4,000 grant a year and a half ago through the Illinois Coalition Against Tobacco. It was for newspaper ads and other efforts to get the group's message out. A group of seven or eight DeKalb bar and restaurant owners also have begun working with the Illinois Licensed Beverage Association, according to Steve Riedl, the executive director of the trade group, which represents businesses in Illinois that sell alcohol. "The bottom line for this is that this (smoking bans) is economically devastating to our industry," Riedl said, although he added that his organization supports smoking bans as long as they don't apply to the hospitality industry. The co-owner of K.J.'s Tap & Grill on East Lincoln Highway, Kim Knowlton, is one of the local business owners working with the ILBA. Knowlton said the ILBA has provided statistics from other places with smoking bans but that her group has not received any outside funding from it or any other group. She also said she alone has collected some 1,000 signatures on a petition opposed to the smoking ban. Riedl said his group provides information to business owners about the purported negative economic impact the bans have had on the hospitality industry - much of it culled from government statistics or industry-funded studies. Riedl and Kathy Drea, a lobbyist for the Illinois chapter of the American Lung Association, acknowledge that in many respects the fight over smoking in DeKalb is just the latest incarnation of a fight seen elsewhere in the state, nation and around the world. But Grosklags and fellow coalition member and 2nd Ward Alderman Kris Povlsen also claim there is local, grassroots support for the ban, pointing to a petition with hundreds of signatures and 400 postcards signed by people who support a ban. The postcards were to be sent to city council members. "This was generated from the Citizens Environmental Commission," Povlsen said, referring to the city-sanctioned, volunteer group. "The council didn't sit one day and say 'What new laws can we put into effect?'" But Povlsen - whose full-time job as a prevention specialist includes working to cut down on youth smoking and substance use - and Grosklags acknowledged that there's been little outcry from those who would arguably benefit the most from a smoking ban: people who work in restaurants and bars that allow smoking. "It (smoke) doesn't bother me," said Lizette Gonzalez, 22, a nonsmoker who works at The House Cafe, which has a smoking section. "I think they have a right. If you want to smoke, you can smoke." Employees at Fatty's Bar & Grill, the Lincoln Inn and The House all reported that they had either rarely or never heard co-workers complain about being exposed to smoke. Although, added Morgan McKendry, a smoker and a waitress at Fatty's: "I don't really know a lot (of waiters and bartenders) that don't smoke." McKendry said she actually was in favor of smoking ban for restaurants, but not for bars. Riedl says the organizations that push for smoking bans have searched "high and low" for a hospitality industry employee who will speak out in behalf of smoking bans, but they can't find them, in part because tips from people who sit in smoking sections generally are far higher than those from patrons in nonsmoking sections. Kathy Drea, who has worked with the DeKalb coalition, said "people who work in the establishments cannot speak out because they will lose their jobs if they speak out." She added: "They should be protected from something that causes cancer and heart attacks and stroke no matter where they work." The notion that restaurant and bar workers should be protected by government from exposure to second-hand smoke - even if they themselves don't actively seek out such protection - doesn't sit well with 26-year-old Poland native Cammillo Sobi, who also works at The House and is a former 10-year smoker. "I think that America is going to be a police country," he said. "They (government) have to protect me from other things. They don't have to protect me from the smoke." Chris Rickert can be reached at crickert@daily-chronicle.com.

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