Way to Go, Tough Guy | Essay | Chicago Reader

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Way to Go, Tough Guy

Faced with a choice between saving face and saving lives, what did our mayor pick?

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When the City Council finally got around to passing its smoking-ban ordinance on December 7, the aldermen cheered, broke into song, and wore themselves out pounding each other on the back for a job well done.

I don't know why they were so ecstatic: the ordinance is a mockery of itself. It devotes two single-spaced pages to laying out the case for a complete ban on smoking in all public spaces only to turn around and delay implementation of the ban in bars and taverns for two and a half years. If secondhand smoke kills, as the ordinance unequivocally states, why wait until July 1, 2008? For that matter, why didn't the city ban it sooner?

The answer to this question hasn't changed since I wrote about the subject in May and July: Mayor Daley. Flower beds in the middle of the street, iron fences around the parks, Meigs Field ripped up in the middle of the night, a giant subway station beneath Block 37--what Daley wants Daley gets, and what he doesn't want we don't get. He's opposed a ban since at least 2002. Despite countervailing evidence out of New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles, the mayor clings to the notion that a smoking ban is bad for bar and restaurant business--as if that were an acceptable reason to expose people to carcinogens. "I've been told by many different people that the mayor eats out three or four times a week, and he picks up things from the people who run those restaurants," says one lobbyist, who like pretty much everyone else around City Hall doesn't want to be identified when talking about Daley. "The thing with the mayor--and I say this with all respect--is that once he gets something in his head it's very hard to get it out."

But continuing to resist the antismoking campaign--which was backed by many of the city's restaurants, not to mention its public-health groups--got to be so embarrassing that even Daley had to back off. Not completely, of course. He conceded no mistakes, made no apologies, and expressed no regrets, even though hundreds of thousands of people have been exposed to secondhand smoke since he torpedoed the last great push for a ban. Instead, toward the end of November, he announced that he had no stand on the issue.

After several days of entertaining debate, the City Council was looking at two possible ordinances: Alderman Ed Smith's outright ban and Alderman Burt Natarus's watered-down ban, which exempted bars and taverns. It looked as though the two sides were heading for a winner-takes-all showdown at the City Council meeting on December 7.

"I think City Hall underestimated our tenacity, but after a while they realized, 'Uh-oh, these folks are staying the course,'" says longtime south-side activist Kwesi Ronald Harris, who closely followed the debate as membership chair of the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network.

On Monday, December 5, John Dunn, Daley's chief legislative aide, passed word along to both sides that the mayor wanted a deal. "Dunn said, 'It's dragged on long enough, the mayor wants it over with,'" says the lobbyist. "And he wanted everyone to agree on one ordinance. He didn't want a divisive vote."

Thus the stage was set for the great "compromise" allowing patrons and employees in bars to be exposed to another two and a half years of secondhand smoke, which, according to the ordinance, contains "4,000 chemicals, 63 of which cause cancer," is "the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States," and "is responsible for the early deaths of as many as 65,000 Americans annually." Good work.

For the record, city officials say bars and taverns need the extra years to prepare for the ban. But I don't know anyone who believes this. "You're telling me they need over two years to prepare for a ban? Come on, man, don't treat us like we're stupid," says Harris. "All you have to do is put up a big old no smoking sign. There, that does the trick. You can do that tomorrow."

Aldermen, lobbyists, and various other City Hall insiders say privately that Daley insisted on the delay to save face for himself and the businesses that had long resisted the ban. "It's completely illogical," says Joel Africk, CEO of the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago. "When the state of Illinois lowered the legal limit for blood alcohol content did they say, 'OK, this protects lives. Now we're going to take two and a half years to make it effective because we don't want to hurt bars'?"

The delay is hardly the ordinance's only flaw. Embedded near the end are three troubling exemptions. One allows for smoking in retail tobacco stores. Sure enough, on the day the ban passed R.J. Reynolds opened the Marshall McGearty Tobacco Lounge in Wicker Park. In addition to premium cigarettes, "the lounge offers light food, baked goods, and a selection of coffee beverages, including lattes and espressos," the Associated Press reported. "There are plans to sell alcoholic beverages."

The ordinance also allows smoking in private clubs or lodges. "The city insisted on that for VFW halls and American Legion posts," says Africk. "It was put to us like, 'How can we tell veterans they can't have their simple pleasures?' We'll be watching to see if bars and taverns try to escape the ban by becoming private clubs."

Finally, there's the provision permitting smoking in any public place whose "owner can demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the commissioner of public health and the commissioner of the environment, that such area has been equipped with air filtration or purification devices or similar technologies as to render the exposure to secondhand smoke . . . equivalent to such exposure . . . in the ambient outdoor air surrounding the establishment."

With that mischievous clause the city walks into a dispute being waged between big tobacco and health groups. "For years and years," Africk explains, "big tobacco has been arguing about whether there was a safe level of exposure for secondhand smoke. There were two battlefronts--the Environmental Protection Agency and the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers, or ASHRAE. Once the EPA declared secondhand smoke a class A carcinogen, meaning no level was safe, that argument was over. So big tobacco moved to a second battleground--ASHRAE."

According to Africk, big tobacco companies had been hoping ASHRAE would endorse a ventilation system that guards against secondhand smoke. "But in June ASHRAE issued a pronouncement that the only way to make a room safe from secondhand smoke is to have no smoking in the room," he says. "Some ventilators might get out the thick smells, but not the tiny particles that are harmful. You would need a tornadolike ventilation to get smoke particles out of the air."

Lawyers for the city insisted on inserting the ventilation clause into the ordinance, Africk and other insiders tell me. "In the 11th hour, with no hearing and no testimony, out of purely political expediency, the city put in that ventilation clause," says Africk. "I told them, 'You don't understand. Big tobacco is going to spend millions on a study to "prove" that blah-blah machine reduces particles. And it will be fiction--because you can't get the dangerous particles out of the air--but you will have to respond.' They gave me one of those responses: 'Nobody can meet this test. Let them have it.' I fought on and they eventually said, 'Say whatever you want about it--it's going in.'"

This means that come late winter or early spring of 2008, prosmoking forces will likely launch a debate over ventilation in a last-ditch effort to kill the looming ban in bars and taverns. "You watch--they'll have all these 'studies' about their Buck Rogers ventilation machines that work like magic," says Harris. "The aldermen will sing and dance and entertain us all. It'd be funny if so many people weren't dying."

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

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