Five years after a statewide smoking ban took effect, the opinions are mixed on whether it has actually helped or hurt business.
"The first year, we lost 38 percent of our business," said Barry Gregory, owner of Crehan's Irish Pub in Belleville. "And we never recovered."
The Smoke Free Illinois Act, which took effect Jan. 1, 2008, was signed by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. It banned smoking in all public buildings in the state of Illinois, including restaurants and taverns or wherever food and beverages are served, with few exceptions.
Smokers have since been forced to go outside to smoke and must remain 15 feet from a door of places where smoking is prohibited.
At Alice's Place, a Belleville bar, a manager said, "It has definitely hurt our business."
Gregory, who has operated his Irish pub in Belleville for the past 14 years, said the law has mostly taken away senior citizens who patronized his bar during the afternoon but are unwilling to take their cigarettes outdoors.
"Personally, I have never smoked in my life, but I know that my customers did and a lot of people who never smoked except when they were having a drink," he said. "It had a major effect on the hospitality industry, especially local businesses and chains. We don't have the advertising revenue that those places have to try to offset that. It's been a huge factor."
The smoking ban seems to have mainly hurt establishments that only serve alcohol and other beverages. As a Belleville restaurant proprietor, Mark Onstott said he was "totally opposed" to the new law, but has since found that consumers have adjusted and keep coming back.
"I thought it was going to be bad for me, but it ended up being OK," Onstott said. "We sell more food than alcohol than we used to, and it used to be the other way around. We sell a lot more food now. It worked out better for us. I never really thought about that."
Onstott owns Shenanigan's Restaurant & Sports Bar and Marco's on Main in Belleville, and recently opened another Belleville dining establishment, Tavern on Main. Because his businesses serve a full menu of food as well as alcoholic beverages, he has seen his business shift more toward food service.
"I was against it, but actually after it went into effect, we sold more food and it didn't hurt business at all," Onstott said. "I might be different from a little tavern ... but we are selling more food. And when you walk in in the morning, it doesn't smell like smoke. It has been better for the food business. We're still selling more food than we used to."
At Schildknect Centerfield in Belleville, manager Theresa Schanz said the bar has provided smokers with a picnic table and a tarp-covered area outside for smoking.
"During the spring and summer, it's the most happening place in the bar," Schanz said. "They have adjusted to it quite well. I was really surprised.
"We've had a lot of people who weren't pleased about it, at first. We were kind of iffy about it and not sure if would affect us, but most of our customers said they all just adjusted to it."
The Casino Queen in East St. Louis went to great lengths to try to accommodate smokers. The casino had just opened a new $92 million casino months before the new law went into effect and initially invested $3 million to install a ventilation system to help get rid of cigarette smoke from the new casino. The casino ended up spending another $700,000 for two three-walled, heated, smoking shelters, located on the northeast and southeast corners of the casino, to cater to smoking guests.
But casino President Jeff Watson said the smoking ban has taken its toll. Watson said the casino initially lost 25 percent in revenue after the law went into effect. He estimated that only about 5 percent to 10 percent of that business has since returned.
"We took a firm hit in our business," Watson said. "We have not seen all of that business come back to us. So what we tried to do is we found other ways to adapt and overcome and rise to the challenge to make the company profitable."
Despite the positive shift in Onstott's business as a consequence of the state smoking ban, Onstott said he still believes smokers should be able to light up inside his and other establishments. He said his business has been fortunate.
"I'm not supporting what they're saying, but in our case, it was kind of like a pleasant surprise," he said. "I thought it would be the end of the world."
Back at his Irish pub, Gregory admits that he does not miss having to wipe the smoke residue from his TV screens and tobacco stains from the bar and floor, but from a financial standpoint the smoking ban has been detrimental to his livelihood and has kept customers away, he believes.
"It's been horrible," he said. "Of course, the bigger argument is when you don't have smoking, people will come in. But if those people didn't go in local establishments previously, they won't change their habits and go in them. Either you are going into local bars and restaurants or you don't."
Contact reporter Will Buss at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2526.