Businesses worry about Illinois smoking ban beginning Tuesday



By David Mercer

Five mornings a week for the past 30 years, Toby Spradling has ordered biscuits, gravy and eggs at Tippey’s in Murphysboro, Ill.

Then he lingers an hour or so while he smokes four or five cigarettes – Dorals – and talks with the other regulars.

All of that, he said, will change Jan. 1, when a new state law will make it illegal to smoke in just about any public place.

“That’s my morning relaxation thing,” said the 59-year-old retired electronics technician. With the new law, “I won’t be doing that – I’ll just be eating my breakfast and leaving.”

With the new year, Illinois will join 18 other states that have comprehensive smoking bans. The Smoke-Free Illinois Act will make it illegal to light up in virtually any public place in the state.

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While the ban applies to every business in Illinois – with exceptions for nursing homes, hotels and businesses that make 80 percent of their money from tobacco – none figures to be more affected than restaurants and bars.

A lot of their owners aren’t happy about it. They worry that they might see less of regular customers like Spradling, who might find it easier to stay home.

“Oh, yeah, I just know that I won’t have much at all for breakfast when that goes smoke-free,” said 63-year-old Virginia Heern, who has owned Tippey’s in Murphysboro, about 95 miles southeast of St. Louis, since her early 20s.

Smokers who break the law could be fined from $100 to $250, while businesses that break the law again and again could be fined at least $2,500.

Many restaurant and bar owners are trying to adapt, but they say it isn’t cheap.

At the Tumble Inn in Champaign, contractors turned part of the parking lot into what owner Toby Herges calls an outdoor beer garden, including a small bar for the warm-weather months. Herges also paid to knock out part of a wall and replace it with glass doors that allow him to keep an eye on whatever’s happening in his new outdoor area – “If you can’t see (customers), trouble is much more likely,” he said.

Herges said the renovations cost more than $100,000.

In addition to worries about longtime smoking customers staying home, many business owners said the details of the new law aren’t entirely clear.

There are questions about the liability of businesses, what required no-smoking signs must say, and whether outdoor smoking areas like the one at the Tumble Inn will be legal.

Based on the advice of his attorney, Herges believes his outdoor smoking area – something a lot of bars around the state are planning – should be OK. But he isn’t sure, given that the law says no smoking is allowed within 15 feet of a business entrance, ventilation intake or an open window.

“I’m just at my wit’s end trying to figure out,” he said.

The General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules was to have considered clarifications to parts of the ban at a meeting earlier this month but instead put that work off until Jan. 9.

The law nonetheless applies starting Tuesday, Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said.

In the weeks leading up the ban, Arnold said, the agency has received calls from business owners asking for guidance.

“A lot of them are asking about implementation, what does this mean, what kind of sign and so forth,” she said.

It also isn’t clear what effect, if any, the smoking ban will have on the money that cigarette, bar and restaurant sales raise through taxes. Cigarette taxes, for instance, provided $350 million for the Illinois budget during the 2007 fiscal year.

Colorado smokers were banned from lighting up in most public places in July 2006. Cigarette-tax collections dropped from $206 million during the 12 months before the ban to $202 million in the 12 months that followed, according to state figures.

Statewide restaurant sales, meanwhile, increased 2.6 percent in the year after the ban.

But tax collections also were affected by sharp decreases in the number of Colorado smokers in recent years, and a dramatic tax-rate increase enacted just ahead of the ban, Colorado Department of Revenue spokesman Mark Couch said.

And restaurant sales figures are affected by a wide range of other factors, among them the local economy, Colorado Restaurant Association President Pete Meersman said.

“It’s very hard to quantify the actual effect” of a smoking ban, he said.

The Illinois Restaurant Association, which didn’t take a position on the smoking ban, isn’t sure how it will play out for its 30,000 members.

Those doing business near another state, spokesman Andrew Ariens said, may well lose business to smoker-friendly spots across state lines.

Debbie Hill, the owner of Debbie’s Diner in Decatur, doesn’t know what to expect on Tuesday.

Some regular customers, devoted to having a smoke after they eat the diner’s onion rings, burgers and pancakes, have told her they won’t be back. Others say they just won’t hang around as long.

Hill said she doesn’t plan to do anything special to accommodate the smokers who make up most of her clientele. And she isn’t sure what she’ll do if someone lights up, even if she may be fined.

But she resents being told what she and her customers can do.

“I’ve never smoked in my life, but I don’t like the government or the state or whoever’s making this law telling me what I can do with my business.”

Associated Press Writer Jim Suhr in St. Louis contributed to this report.