Breathing room: why is the CTA exempt from city no-smoking laws? | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Breathing room: why is the CTA exempt from city no-smoking laws?

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To her shock and dismay, Lynne Lohr entered the CTA's el station and bus terminal at Higgins and Harlem one day in February and saw two uniformed bus drivers smoking cigarettes beneath a no smoking sign.

From this chance encounter a larger case has erupted. Lohr has pressed charges, arguing that the drivers were violating the city's antismoking ordinance.

Daley administration and CTA officials have refused to prosecute; they're treating Lohr's case as a minor irritant. The more she persists--and she vows not to give up--the more irritated officials have become. They've found themselves effectively parroting the tobacco industry's stance that secondhand smoke is an unimportant matter, of significance only to zealots.

"The city and the CTA don't realize the dangers of secondhand smoke," says Lohr. "There's a reason for no smoking areas: public health and lives are at stake."

Lohr's antipathy to cigarettes stems from illnesses she has suffered and seen. She has sinusitis, which is aggravated by cigarette smoke, and she's been a chaplain at several local hospitals, where she's watched smokers die of cancer and heart disease. "I saw the devastation that smoking can do," she

says. "I saw things I can't forget."

In 1993 she helped form a local affiliate of GASP, the Group Against Smoking Pollution. "We believe that if the rights of the smoker conflict with the rights of the nonsmoker, the nonsmoker should prevail," says Lohr.

GASP's letter-writing campaign helped convince the CTA to post no smoking signs in many of its stations. It was to celebrate the recent installation of such signs that Lohr and two GASP associates--Walter Huff and Dan Gerson--showed up at Harlem and Higgins on February 13.

"Those drivers were under the very sign we came to photograph," says Lohr. "I walked up to the drivers and said, "The sign says no smoking.' One driver says to me, "So what.' I had the camera strapped around my neck, and he says, "If you take my picture, I'll break your camera."'

Lohr was positive they were breaking the city ordinance because she knew that the law, which prohibits smoking in "any streetcar, elevated train, or subway," requires that at least half the seats in "all waiting areas of airport terminals, train stations and bus depots" be reserved for nonsmokers.

"I was only able to copy the number of one of the drivers," says Lohr. "I called the police and filed a complaint with the officers. And the next day I had to go to the courthouse at Grand and Central to get the warrant to have the driver arrested.

"I got there at two in the afternoon and they told me it was too late, I had to come back early the next morning. I came back real early the next morning; I was in the vestibule for about 20 minutes before they opened. Then after they opened I had to wait another half hour because the warrant officer was late. When he finally got there he sent me home. He said I didn't have the correct information. He said I needed more than the driver's number--I needed to know his name."

She got the bus driver's name from the police and returned to the courthouse for a third time a few days later. "The funny thing is that while I was waiting I saw a uniformed officer--I don't know if he was county or city--smoking a cigarette in the nonsmoking lobby of a public facility," says Lohr. "I guess no one, even the police, is serious about obeying this law."

On March 16 Lohr was called to the courthouse for a status hearing on her complaint (she decided not to press charges for the verbal threat after a warrant officer told her it was not a "chargeable offense").

"Before the hearing I had a talk with the prosecutor, a young lawyer named [Dan] Madigan," says Lohr. "He told me that he'll try to prosecute but he doesn't think it will work because the CTA has its own laws--as if Chicago's laws don't apply. I said, "What do you mean? I've seen the ordinance that outlaws smoking and it does apply.' So he tells me that I don't understand the nature of how this works and how many other major cases he had. I knew I was in trouble because he didn't seem very interested in my case."

Lohr, Madigan, the bus driver, and a lawyer for the CTA named Thomas Shanahan were called before the judge. Within a few minutes the lawyers had asked for a recess, and Lohr was asked to follow Madigan and Shanahan into the hallway. The bus driver remained in the courtroom.

"Shanahan told me that the case can't proceed because the CTA's private property--an entity unto itself, like Evanston--and the city's antismoking laws don't apply there," says Lohr. "He also said the ordinance doesn't apply because the station's not enclosed--it's like a windbreak.

"Then he tells me that the bus depot mentioned in the language of Chicago's antismoking ordinance means the Greyhound depot. That might have been the most ludicrous argument of them all. I said, "If they meant Greyhound they would have said Greyhound.' So Madigan says, "No, they wouldn't put anything in there that specific'--in other words, it does mean Greyhound. Can you believe this? None of their arguments make any sense because the station is enclosed, the CTA is public, and if the city ordinance did not affect it why would they even mention subway cars in the ordinance? But what really got to me is that here I am trying to have the law enforced and the lawyers are treating me like I'm the problem."

After the hearing, Lohr wrote a letter to CTA president Robert Belcaster. "As the Chicago Lung Association says, when you can't breathe, nothing else matters," Lohr told Belcaster. "When my right to be protected by such an important ordinance was not recognized, and the illnesses making the ordinance so necessary were mocked, it was very sad for me."

Belcaster has not responded to her letter. But his chief spokesperson issued the following response when asked about the matter: "The CTA operates in what is essentially an outdoor environment. Smoking is not permitted inside our buses or trains and most riders adhere to those regulations. We understand this person's [Lohr's] concern but the focus of our security efforts is keeping crime off our system. We don't believe our riders want to use our limited resources arresting smokers when more serious

violations are what really concern them.

"That's it and that's all we will say."

The spokesperson for the city's law department did not return phone calls.

Officials from the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago are closely following the case because they believe secondhand smoke is a serious public health concern.

"The EPA came out and said that secondhand smoke is a class A carcinogen, which means it's a cancer-causing agent," says Barbara Silvestri, director of tobacco programs and policy for the lung association. "These laws are there to protect the public health. We want them to be enforced."

According to Janet Williams, the lung association's director of communications, secondhand smoke is "the number-one trigger of asthma attacks in adults and children. In Cook County alone we have 83,000 children with asthma. In addition there are lower-respiratory infections in children, like colds, ear infections, bronchitis, and pneumonia, that are linked to secondary smoke."

As they see it, the CTA and city are sending the dangerous message that of all the crimes committed at train stations, blowing cancer-causing agents into the lungs of innocent bystanders ranks at the bottom of the priority list.

"You can't pick and choose which laws you are going to enforce, but that's what the CTA's doing here," says Williams. "I don't think they would be so lax if they caught a driver writing graffiti on the wall. They don't take the issue of secondhand smoke seriously; they treat nonsmokers as nuisances or zealots.

"There's also a simple issue of courtesy. When those drivers go into a restaurant that says No Shirts, No Service, I'm sure they don't take their shirts off. But they feel free to smoke a cigarette beneath a no smoking sign. Something's wrong here."

So far, Lohr's main ally in this affair has been Alderman Ed Burke, the mayor's floor leader. Burke's aides are pressing reluctant corporation counsel lawyers to prosecute the case. At the moment it's uncertain if they will. According to what Lohr has gleaned from Burke's office, the city's lawyers are studying the law to determine whether the antismoking ordinance covers CTA stations.

"It seems like the most obvious thing to me," says Lohr. "Smokers' rights stop where my nose begins. I'm not going to give this up. It's one of the most important things in my life."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Randy Tunnell.

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