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Five years of Smoke-Free Illinois making a difference

A group of men smoking cigarettes are seen outside of Sullivan's Tavern in DeKalb.
A group of men smoking cigarettes are seen outside of Sullivan's Tavern in DeKalb.

DeKALB – Two months after Danny Carney took over Joker’s Bar and Grill in Sycamore, business declined by 30 percent.

It had nothing to do with the new owner’s strategy, but everything to do with a new state law that prohibited smoking in bars, restaurants, theaters, casinos and almost all other enclosed public places.

The sudden drop in business was very scary, Carney said.

“The bad economy was just about to hit, and the combination of the two was real tough,” he said.

Five years after the passing of the Smoke-Free Illinois Act, business is better than ever at Joker’s, and Carney could not be happier with the change. He said customers who otherwise would have avoided bars have come along with the smokers who left temporarily when the law was passed. He said many of those smokers even prefer the clean atmosphere.

“People really enjoy the smoke-free environment, even the smokers,” he said. “I love being able to come in and not smell like an ashtray when I leave.”

The positive changes the law has had on businesses and citizens come as no surprise to DeKalb Mayor Kris Povlsen, who championed the policy locally as an alderman.

DeKalb implemented the smoking ban six months before the state law because of efforts from Povlsen and other aldermen.

He said there was some resistance at the time, but the numbers and feedback from bar and restaurant owners show the ban has been a blessing. Statewide, the number of adult smokers dropped from 21.2 percent in 2008 to 16.9 percent in 2012.

Locally, Povlsen said many business owners have enjoyed the change.

“All the naysayers who thought it was going to be end of business as we know it – none of that came to fruition,” he said. “I consider it one of the most important things I ever worked on.”

Jane Lux, public health administrator for the DeKalb County Health Department, said the data shows the effectiveness of the smoking ban. Illinois was the 13th state to implement a smoking ban and now there are 30 states with restrictions.

The Illinois Department of Public Health estimates that more than 30,200 heart disease hospitalizations in Illinois have been prevented, which translates into an estimated savings of $1.18 billion in hospital costs, Lux said.

“Tobacco use is the single largest preventable cause of early death in the U.S.,” Lux said. “I think people in the public realize and understand that it contributes to illness and obesity. ... We’re on the right track.”

One person who has benefited from the smoking ban in multiple ways is Earl Sullivan, owner of Sullivan’s Tavern in DeKalb.

Sullivan said not only has his business increased, but as someone who suffers from asthma, he has been able to cut his medication in half because he is no longer exposed to secondhand smoke.

“It has turned out better than what people anticipated,” Sullivan said. “Originally, it was a big dramatic decrease to business, but everything has gone back to what it was.”

Still, there is more work to be done, especially in DeKalb County, where smoking rates are higher than state and national averages, said Michael Kokott, a licensed respiratory therapist with Kishwaukee Community Hospital.

Lung cancer deaths remain the leading cancer for fatalities at Kishwaukee Community Hospital and high blood pressure and heart disease still are prevalent among patients, he said.

Kokott said the hospital offers smoking cessation programs and advice on how to transition from smoking to healthier habits such as electronic cigarettes or chewing gum instead of overeating, which is common among those attempting to quit.

But the real change will come with efforts in schools and preventing youth from smoking before they ever start, he said.

“You have to get to them before they start smoking,” he said. “It’s so highly addictive people usually need a major event like a heart attack or a birth of a child to make a change.”

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