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updated: 7/5/2011 4:27 PM

Palatine alone, so far, on smoking crackdown

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  • Kevin O'Neal of Palatine lights his cigarette while standing across the street from T.J. O'Brien's in Palatine.

       Kevin O'Neal of Palatine lights his cigarette while standing across the street from T.J. O'Brien's in Palatine.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Michael Hane of Palatine smokes a cigarette while standing across the street from T.J. O'Brien's in Palatine.

       Michael Hane of Palatine smokes a cigarette while standing across the street from T.J. O'Brien's in Palatine.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Michael Casey, left, and Kevin O'Neal, both of Palatine, chat while smoking across the street from T.J. O'Brien's in Palatine.

       Michael Casey, left, and Kevin O'Neal, both of Palatine, chat while smoking across the street from T.J. O'Brien's in Palatine.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

 

Palatine officials say they're not setting out to be pioneers by proactively enforcing a state law that prohibits smokers from lighting up within 15 feet of an entrance -- they've just reached the end of their rope.

And it appears Palatine is alone in its frustration.

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From cities with bustling downtowns such as Naperville to bedroom communities like Hanover Park, not a single suburban police department of more than 25 polled by the Daily Herald has issued a citation since the law went into effect Jan. 1, 2008.

"It's been very much a nonissue here," Grayslake Acting Police Chief Matt McCutcheon said. "A lot of the bars and restaurants have made provisions for patrons to go outside and still be in compliance, and we've relied on self-regulation, which hasn't led to any complaints."

The same is true in Wheeling, where police say most complaints about illegal flare-ups were permanently extinguished after the village's health department contacted the business. Police go to the scene only if the problem continues, Deputy Chief John Teevans said.

"We've had to do that less than a dozen times and not once did it result in a citation," Teevans said.

Palatine officials recently announced that after multiple efforts to bring downtown smokers in compliance, it would start issuing $100 fines for anyone who doesn't follow the Smoke Free Illinois Act. The measure bans smoking inside public places and requires smokers to distance themselves at least 15 feet from an entrance or open window of a public building or place of employment.

It's come to this, they say, because complaints over clouds of smoke -- particularly on downtown Palatine sidewalks -- continue to pour in.

And the target of most everyone's beef is smokers who congregate on Slade Street in front of T.J. O'Brien's Bar and Grill.

"This is absolutely not about generating revenue for the village, harassing residents or picking on someone," Councilman Aaron Del Mar said. "It's about people being able to get to a downtown venue without walking through a cloud of smoke, and being nice hasn't worked."

When the bar's property owner didn't agree with the village's suggestion that smokers be allowed to gather in an adjacent alley, Palatine officials in April created a designated smoking area across the street and down a few storefronts.

Owner Tim O'Brien has said he points patrons to the new zone and posted a sign on his front door stating smokers can't stand in the vicinity. But he can't control his customers' behavior once they leave, he says.

While officials can only speculate as to why the problem seems more pervasive in Palatine than in other communities, one factor is surely that T.J. O'Brien's is wedged between two businesses. While most other bars, restaurants, hotels and office buildings have the space to create a compliant smoking area on their own property, there's no such place for the Palatine bar.

Schaumburg public health officer Mary Passaglia also said she's found that where an establishment puts ashtrays or a cigarette butt receptacle is crucial. Palatine's designated smoking area doesn't have one.

"People typically linger around them," she said. "Complaints drop dramatically once we work with a business on the placement."

Palatine's dilemma is unusual, with officials in suburbs including Arlington Heights, Elgin, Gurnee, Schaumburg and Wheaton thankful they can't relate.

Over the past 3 years in Lake County, for instance, there have been 233 total complaints about 151 businesses reported through the Illinois Department of Public Health's hotline or website. The number doesn't reflect people who complained directly to municipalities.

Barbara de Nekker, a community health specialist who works with the Tobacco Free Lake County program, said once a complaint is received, a certified letter is sent to the business making them aware someone complained along with information about the law and ways to comply.

If a second complaint comes in, another letter is sent saying the county will conduct an unannounced investigation should a third complaint occur.

"We've only had to do field visits for five entities and forwarded just one of those to the sheriff's office," de Nekker said, adding that complaints are decreasing over time. "The letters and technical assistance we provide seem to do the trick."

The letters Palatine sent to downtown businesses announcing their enforcement initiative and the buzz over it seem to be doing the trick as well. So far, the sidewalks have stayed clear and police haven't issued a ticket.

Deputy Police Chief Alan Stoeckel said this is an opportunity for officers to go around to businesses, be visible and reeducate people about the law. They're not staking out the area looking for offenders.

"We'll issue tickets if there are violations, but this is no different from any other enforcement," Stoeckel said. "Our ultimate goal is voluntary compliance by not only the businesses, but the patrons."

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