Phil Luciano: Chicago aghast at hillbilly smokers

Phil Luciano

For an astounding expose this week, the Chicago Tribune dared to send reporters into unfamiliar, mysterious territory:

Downstate Illinois.

That's right. They deigned to rub elbows with some of us great, unwashed masses. In a story touted atop the Trib Web site, these brave correspondents' diligent, dogged journalism uncovered an explosive revelation: They were absolutely, positively shocked to find that downstaters still smoke in bars.

The first, startling paragraph recounts an eye-opening sojourn into a tavern in Taylorville: "Customers merrily puff away, sharing cigarettes with the bartender and owner while openly defying and mocking the state's ban on indoor smoking." And the breathless prose continues: "Downstate smokers can easily be found either breaking the law or craftily skirting it."

Zounds! What nefarious insurrection is afoot south of Interstate 80?!?

You can find this gee-whillikers scoop at,0,2717342.story. But, in a nutshell, the Trib just can't believe such lawlessness is rampant downstate while Chicago watering holes unfailingly follow the law.

I find it hard to fathom that nary a corner pub in Chicago carries a wisp of tobacco smoke. Then again, its citizens have been beaten down. Once the brawny Hog Butcher to the World and the home to Al Capone, Chicago has become a nanny municipality, with ordinances and proposals to fight scourges like goose liver, trans-fats, bottled water and everything else - except, of course, crooked politicians.

So maybe Chicago smokers have given up. Not so down here. I predicated this long ago, that Peorians wouldn't tolerate a smoking ban. Today, with a little searching, you can find a local bar - you could call them smoke-easies - where you can light up and no one says a peep.

It's not quite as brazen and confrontational as the Trib suggests. There's little "mocking," aside from grumbling about the government - a daily conversational staple in any saloon. And I've yet to spot any barflies "craftily skirting" the law, unless that refers to smokers' flicking ashes into empty beer cans and hiding them behind the bar on the rare occasions that police grudgingly respond to a persnickety complaint.

As the story points out, authorities downstate are reluctant to prosecute a vague law that doesn't explain its parameters or enforcement. Chicago-area authorities see no difficulties in handing out fines and stomping on due process. But as a state's attorney in southern Illinois said, "It's a classic difference between us down here and folks up there."

The story generated a mass of online comments to the Trib. Some carried typical Chicago snootiness: "Leave it to the hillbillies to be proud of their own ignorance."

But overwhelmingly, the comments recognized that this isn't about ignorance or even smoking. It's about standing up for individual rights. As one put it, "Sounds like those downstaters got a whole lot of common sense. Good for them. This is just another Chicago law forced on the rest of the state."

Amen. And may all the great thinkers up north - and the Chicago Tribune - realize that sometimes, just sometimes, we hillbillies have the brains and guts to stand up to asinine public policies.

Phil Luciano can be reached at or (309) 686-3155.