DU QUOIN — A small black ashtray rests on the bar in front on a man sitting at the bar, a few feet away from where a pack of cigarettes rest alongside the cash register.
The smell of cigarettes hangs in the air a bit more heavily at another bar, where someone is actively smoking, another ash tray on the bar near by.
These are not uncommon sights in a few bars in Du Quoin, where a handful of people at bars talked about smoking in such public establishments, like bars — even though it is against the law in Illinois.
In the bars in Du Quoin where it is allowed, or at least not stopped, those who frequent them understand that some might desire to smoke and do, and, might move to a different part of the bar or fan away the smoke, but apparently don't complain.
One person noted that people who go to bars and drink tend to then want to smoke — the two activities seem to compliment each other, she said.
Another man, sitting at a bar, said if bar owners and managers disallow smoking, their crowds, or patrons, will go away.
Also, he added, any publication about smoking in bars will be detrimental for that business community in Du Quoin and paint with a broad-brush those other bars where smoking is not allowed or condoned.
"(This) is going to hurt businesses," he said. "I don't want (this publicity) to hurt people that I know … They will go out of business," he said.
Another person noted that people who go to bars and drink tend to then want to smoke — the two seem to compliment each other, she said.
The law: Smoke Free Illinois Act
Effective Jan 1, 2008, Illinois enacted the Smoke-Free Illinois Act, which banned smoking in such public spaces as bars, restaurants, libraries, and museums and even in government vehicles. The law arose out of a concern for the impact of second-hand smoke on others. Citing data from a 2006 U.S. Surgeon General report, the Smoke Free Illinois website notes that second-hand smoke kills at least 29,000 people a year, 2,900 of those in the state of Illinois.
Smoking in bars might be happening in the city, but the numbers do not reflect that many incidents are reported or calculated in complaint data.
According to Nicole Marlow, a health educator with the Perry County Health Department, that agency gave only two complaints and two citations in the 2015-2016 fiscal year. That fiscal year, agency staff inspected 202 food establishments — a designation that includes bars.
The previous fiscal year, from July 2014 to June 2015, the Perry County Health Department conducted 214 inspections of food establishments, resulting in 12 complaints and 12 citations, Marlow said.
“Looking at our numbers from 2014 to this last year, it appears that the problem is going down," Marlow said. "That’s what the data is showing.”
Data collected by the Illinois Department of Health staff on complaints about violations of the smoking ban also show a decline or a holding-steady.
Few complaints registered
Du Quoin Mayor Guy Alongi said no one has ever complained to him about smoking in the city's bars or restaurants during his time in public office. He said he doubted that businessowners in Du Quoin would jeopardize their businesses and risk offending their patrons by allowing smoking to take place on the premises.
"I’m not going to say that it doesn’t happen and that I haven’t heard (about it happening)," he said.
In fact, he noted that at least two local bars have what are called "beer gardens."
He noted that he's driven by several bars where he's seen people standing outside, smoking, so feels those business owners are complying with the law.
Those who smoke outside these public establishments must do so at least 15 feet away from public entrances and open windows, according to the Smoke Free Illinois website.
Public-smoking complaints, by the numbers
Complaints to the Illinois State Health Department were most-plentiful in 2008 and the years following the enactment of the law, but those complaints have tapered down to a handful each year, according to that agency. The state's health department staff collect data on complaints made to it, not those made to county and regional health departments or law-enforcement officers.
According to data on counties in Southern Illinois, the Illinois Department of Health reports that Perry County (with a 2015 estimated population of 21,543) has one of the lower rates of reported tobacco violations: 26 since the law went into effect in 2008. The vast majority, 22, came from 2008 to 2012; there's been one reported complaint each year since, from 2013 through 2016, according to that data.
Some of the larger counties in Southern Illinois — such as Williamson (population, 67,466); Jackson (population 59,363) and Franklin County (population 39,485) — have far more registered complaints.
Williamson County had 254 complaints; Jackson County, 172 complaints; and Franklin County, 169. The vast majority of those complaints also came during the first few years of the law's enactment, 2008 to 2012, and are bundled in that configuration.
So what happens if there is smoking in a public establishment?
Those found in violation of the anti-smoking law are fined for their violations, Marlow said. That businessowner will be fined $250 the first time that happens, she said. A second violation within that same year is a $500 fine, and any other additional violations in that same year of the first violation results in a mininum of a $2,500 fine.
She said each year, the health department shares information, reminding public businesses about the state's smoke-free law.
"Our goal is not to write tickets," Marlow said. "Our goal is to educate and hopefully prevent people from breaking the law."
A public health, not a law enforcement, matter
While some people might think that smoking in a public space is a law-enforcement concern, it is a health department issue, Alongi said. The state's website says that state and local health departments and local law-enforcement branches are designated enforcement agencies.
Any complaints or concerns expressed to the local police department will be forwarded on to the Perry County Health Department, Alongi said.
"I know it’s a health issue, and it should be a concern," Alongi said. "Believe me, with all the problems that smaller and larger communities have, with crime and drug problems in their communities, I'm sure that somebody smoking (in a bar) is not going to be on the priority list.”