Don't Hold Your Breath | Essay | Chicago Reader

Don't Hold Your Breath 

Will the City Council rise up to pass a smoking ban without Da Mare's blessing?

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For years crusaders who want to make Chicago's public spaces smoke free have had the backing of doctors, medical researchers, people who've beaten cancer, and the survivors of those who haven't. That hasn't swayed the City Council. "We haven't had the votes in the past, but we'll be looking for them again," says 28th Ward alderman Ed Smith, who's trying to round up the 26 votes he'll need to pass an ordinance. "I know it's an uphill fight."

While other cities as well as states and even countries implement bans on smoking in public places, Chicago continues to permit smoking in restaurants, taverns, and bowling alleys. Smith and some of the country's leading health-advocacy groups, including the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association, are trying to change that with the recently launched Smoke-Free Chicago Campaign. "We have to take a stand," says Kwesi Ron Harris, membership chairman of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network. "The reality is that secondhand smoke kills."

The counteroffensive is being led by officials from the restaurant and tobacco industries, who downplay the harm done by secondhand smoke and insist a ban would hurt small businesses. "We all know carcinogens are bad for you," says Andrew Ariens, communications director for the Illinois Restaurant Association. "But to what degree, to what level? It's not clear." What is clear, he says, is that banning cigarettes is bad for business--if smokers can't smoke in bars, restaurants, and bowling alleys they'll stop going there. He thinks the city's best policy would be to let the free market reign. Business owners who want to ban cigarettes should be free to do so--and those who don't shouldn't have to. "The market is already driving this issue," he says. "There has been a 90 percent increase in nonsmoking sections in Chicago over the last few years. Why not leave it to the business owners--let them decide--instead of having government step in?"

Supporters of a ban find such reasoning laughable. "My God, how long will they keep dragging out the same tired old arguments?" says Janet Williams, who's on the steering committee of the Illinois Coalition Against Tobacco. "I remember an alderman telling me, 'I don't believe in telling people how to run their business.' Well, you tell them they have to have employees wash their hands after using the washroom, don't you? There are a lot of things governments tell restaurants. They regulate restaurants. They inspect them. Otherwise people would get sick."

Williams goes on, "We're not exactly asking Chicago to go out on a limb here. We're only asking Chicago to come into the 21st century." More than 1,000 U.S. cities now have bans on smoking, including Lexington, Kentucky, and Dallas. Several states have them too--Florida, Vermont, California, Massachusetts, and New York.

A study released last month by Harvard's School of Public Health shows that since Massachusetts passed its ban two years ago, sales receipts in bars and restaurants haven't dropped. Research by New York's Department of Taxation and Finance shows that after that state imposed its ban in March 2003 business in New York City bars and restaurants declined briefly, then rebounded. Smoking bans may not have hurt the convention or tourist trades either. Minneapolis even uses its ban to help lure convention business, and last year both the Democrats and the Republicans held their conventions in cities with bans, New York and Boston. "Let's be real," says Williams. "Nobody makes decisions on which town they're going to based on smoking, unless they're lunatics. The last I looked, people are still going to Italy and Ireland--and they're smoke free."

Yet Chicago holds out. The first ban was proposed in 1986 but never made it out of committee, and some restrictions were passed in 1988. In the last go-round, in 2002, Ed Smith and 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke introduced a citywide ban on smoking in public places. During the council debate they trotted out doctors, medical experts, and cancer patients who repeated facts from reports by the U.S. surgeon general, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. National Toxicology Program. They noted that secondhand smoke contains 60 known or suspected cancer-causing agents, that it causes disease, including lung cancer, in nonsmokers, and that it drives up the cost of doing business by raising health insurance costs.

The Illinois Restaurant Association countered with restaurateur and former Bears coach Mike Ditka. He dismissed the legislation as unnecessary, recalling that his grandfather lived to a ripe old age even though he smoked and accusing Burke of having a "bug up his butt." Burke challenged Ditka to explain "how he found out about the condition of my anus," but Ditka didn't respond.

Ditka's antics, though entertaining, turned out to be unnecessary. The bill died in committee. Smith, well aware that he would lose, didn't even call for a vote. He says that if Daley had supported the bill it would have passed.

Daley hadn't volunteered an opinion. When reporters pressed him for comment he finally suggested that he might support a ban on smoking in restaurants but not in bars, because he thought it would be bad for business. "You want some fresh air in your restaurant--that's a legitimate concern," he told reporters. As for bars, he said, people "do drink and smoke." Aldermen I've talked to say his legislative aides then pressed them to vote against the ban.

To win this time, the ban's supporters say they need to persuade the mayor to speak out in favor of the ban--or at least not get in its way. They've hooked up with Carolyn Grisko, a public relations consultant who used to work in Daley's press office and ran one of his mayoral campaigns. "I think it's a pretty good sign that we signed on with Grisko," says Harris. "This is one of his allies. She has connections. We're at the table."

Maybe. In other matters, particularly zoning, the presence of a well-connected law firm usually means the mayor or the planning department has OK'd whatever changes the firm's advocating. As one city planner explained it to me, people with clout hire other people with clout so that other people with clout will give them what they want.

But Daley, who hasn't said where he stands this time around and didn't respond to my calls, may be perfectly willing to ignore Grisko's advice. That's pretty much what happened when smoking-ban supporters turned to David Wilhelm, another former Daley aide, to direct their 2002 campaign. "We had meetings with [former mayoral chief of staff] Sheila O'Grady," says one activist. "They listened to what we said, and then they opposed us anyway."

If the initial reaction of Dr. John Wilhelm, commissioner of the Department of Public Health, is any indication, Daley isn't planning to support a broad ban. Health department officials are obligated by law to protect the public's health, yet they're also supposed to follow the company line. In 2002 Wilhelm didn't endorse the attempt to pass a ban. He didn't even testify on the issue during the debate on it. And though he's the city's chief medical adviser, he says he can't recall ever having had a conversation with Daley on the matter. Even more surprising, he says he has no position on whether a ban should be imposed. And he says there's really nothing he can do to combat the dangers of secondhand smoke other than encourage people not to smoke in the first place. "This is a political decision to be made by the City Council and the mayor," he says. "I'm not comfortable telling the city what to do."

Supporters of a ban figure that if anyone should be their ally in this cause it's the head of the public health department. But they're trying not to make any intemperate remarks for fear they'll undermine their case with the mayor.

Instead, they're trying to build enough grassroots support in the city's wards to compel aldermen to do what they almost never do--pass an ordinance regardless of Daley's position. "I think the votes are there," says Smith. "We just have to get people to step up." When he has enough votes he'll introduce a bill in the council's health committee. "I don't want to give away my hand, but I can tell you this--I'm going to work hard to get this passed," he says. "It's a safety issue and a health issue."

As Smith knows, this kind of crusade can drag on for a long time if it doesn't have the mayor's backing. For more than a decade low-income-housing activists have been pushing for a set-aside ordinance, which would require developers to set aside a portion of new housing units for low- or moderate-income residents. They've managed to win the support of unions and church leaders, including the cardinal. At times they've even counted more than 26 yes votes in the City Council. But they've never won the support of Daley, who says set-asides hurt development. Each time the aldermen who back set-asides bring the matter to a vote, a couple aldermen suddenly change their minds and the bill dies.

Even though they know their bill could face the same fate, the supporters of a smoking ban vow to press on. "I know how this goes in the council--they hold their breath waiting for the mayor's nod," says one veteran ban supporter. "But what choice do we have? We can't just give up. Lives are at stake."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Dave Curd.

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