BLOOMINGTON — With a glass of Jim Beam and Coke in one hand, Brad Legner took a long drag off a Marlboro Light on a Friday night at McLean County Bar, one of his favorite hangouts.
The downtown Bloomington tavern is small, dimly lit and relatively quiet. Being able to smoke while having a few drinks after a tough work week makes the watering hole an attractive spot for Legner, who owns a local cleaning business.
But talk of a smoking ban at Twin City restaurants and bars has many smokers feeling their right to light up is under serious threat. In particular, bars are seen as a final public haven for smoking.
"It's discrimination is what it is," Legner, 28, said of a proposed smoking ban. "Smoking is a right. We have the right to buy and smoke cigarettes. Now they're trying to take that right away. Why? It doesn't make sense."
Bloomington and Normal city officials are considering a ban after Illinois lawmakers gave cities the authority to restrict smoking in any building used by the public when they passed the Clean Indoor Home Rule Act, which takes effect Jan. 1.
Smoke Free Bloomington-Normal, a coalition of local health-care providers and medical research organizations, recently formed in support of an ordinance calling for stricter smoking laws.
Normal Mayor Chris Koos and Bloomington Mayor Steve Stockton agree on one thing: If there's going to be an ordinance restricting smoking, Bloomington and Normal should adopt similar laws to keep businesses in both cities from gaining an advantage.
Currently, about 25 percent of Twin City restaurants are smoke-free; many of them are fast-food eateries, according to the state Department of Public Health. There are no bars on the list.
Koos, who supports a ban in all buildings used by the public, including restaurants and bars, said he will not let his personal views drive discussions when the Normal City Council addresses a ban in January.
The Bloomington City Council also will take up the issue early next year. Stockton said he doesn't believe a total ban is necessary and the cities should explore ways to allow businesses to offer smoking to their customers.
Although many smokers interviewed last week, like Legner, think a ban is an infringement of their rights, supporters here and elsewhere argue they are justified in trying to outlaw cigarettes because of the negative health effects caused by secondhand smoke.
In Springfield, alderman Bruce Strom has proposed a comprehensive smoking ban that includes not just restaurants and bars, but also bowling alleys, hotels and any other building used by the public.
Employees working in restaurants and bars deserve the same protection from cigarette smoke as customers, Strom said. The smoking ban debate has become so heated in Springfield, Strom said, one person compared him to Hitler.
"People try to say this a personal rights issue. I don't agree with that. It's a health issue," Strom said. "If you choose to smoke, you're putting something in the air that has an adverse effect on someone else."
Dave Selzer, a McLean County Board member and longtime anti-smoking activist, agrees but pointed out a hole in the state law: It doesn't allow county government to regulate smoking in unincorporated areas.
"I support a level playing field. It should the be same for everyone," Selzer said, including for workers in bars and restaurants in unincorporated areas not covered by the law.
"They don't have the right of protection. They deserve that right and they don't have it," Selzer said.
The most to lose
While smokers may see a ban as continuation of the exile they've faced over the years — from the office to the bathroom to the basement to the parking lot — bar and restaurant owners think they have the most to lose if Twin City officials take the kind of hard-line stance backed by people like Strom.
Bob Groetken, who has owned Schooners since 1983, said owners of established Twin City eateries are preparing for the "dog fight" a proposed smoking ban would likely set off next year.
"Something's going to happen. They're going to do something. We know this isn't going to just go away," Groetken said. "Personally, I think they should let us run our operations the way we want. We're the ones who've invested our time, energy and money in this."
Groetken said he's already spoken to Stockton about concerns he has with a smoking ban. Many of his customers don't smoke in their homes but drink at Schooners so they can get out and enjoy a few cigarettes.
But if city officials prohibit smoking, it should be in restaurants, bars and everywhere else, Groetken said. Giving bars, restaurants or any other businesses an advantage over others should be avoided.
"If they're going to do it, I'd say they should just outlaw it everywhere," Groetken said. "If they're going to take this hard-core stance and try to be like California and New York, they got to do it across the board if they're going to be fair."
John Wohrley, owner of McLean County Bar, knows all about the harmful effects of smoking. His mother died of lung cancer at 47 because she smoked too much, he said. He's never touched cigarettes.
But telling customers they can't smoke "will kill business at every bar," Wohrley said. And he's not the only bar owner who feels that way.
Mike Hill, who owns Maguire's Bar & Grill in downtown Bloomington, has heard the same fears from members of the Downtown Bar Owners Association.
"I think everybody ought to have their own choice about whether they'll allow smoking," Hill said. "I've never been a smoker, but if it bothered me, I wouldn't be coming here. I don't know if you're ever going to make everyone happy."
Heard it all before
Strom has heard these same arguments from Springfield bar owners, so he said he's done lots of research on smoking bans since he decided to spearhead one. Sales revenue statistics in California show there wasn't a negative economic impact after businesses went smoke-free, he said.
While some customers won't go into bars or restaurants because they can't smoke, there's many more non-smokers to replace them, he said, adding many people have stayed away from bars for years because they can't stand smoke and hate coming home smelling like an ashtray.
While Springfield's proposed smoking ban has been tabled. Strom said half the city's 10 alderman support banning smoking everywhere in the city, while the others have pushed for allowing it in some businesses.
As Bloomington and Normal officials decide which way to go, Strom said they should be cautious of passing a weak ordinance with exceptions, such as prohibiting smoking in restaurants, but not bars.
"Because this is a health issue, it's difficult to compromise. Compromise means allowing smoking in certain places," Strom said. "How do you compromise which employees should be protected from secondhand smoke? How do you choose which customers at these facilities should be protected?"
Stockton knows the smoking ban issue will be heated, drawing arguments from every corner.
"Personally, I think the guiding principle is allowing people to avoid others' smoke whenever possible," Stockton said. "There are extremes on both sides of this issue. In many things, you don't go to the extremes. You try to find the win-win, the common ground."