City of smoke-filled rooms unlikely host for anti-tobacco conference

CHICAGO - City workers and aldermen regularly puff on cigarettes in a haze-filled public waiting room outside the City Council chambers. A few major corporations still refuse to banish smoking employees to the streets. And it's tough to avoid smoke in restaurants, at train stations and sometimes even laundries.

So how did Chicago - a city with a deserved reputation for smoke-filled rooms - get to host a giant anti-tobacco conference?

''That's what I'd like to know,'' grumbled Serena Chen, an American Lung Association representative from Oakland, Calif., who's among the 4,500 delegates in town this week for the 11th World Conference on Tobacco. ''I feel like I need to zip my jacket in a plastic bag every time I go out to a restaurant.''

Chen admitted that living in California - perhaps the country's most vehement anti-smoking state - has made her ultra-sensitive to smoke. Attendees also say Chicago is certainly better than cities that have hosted the conference in years past - including Beijing, Paris and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

But several have noted the irony of holding a conference on strategies for cutting tobacco use in a city hardly known for its anti-smoking activism, in a state where it's still legal to light up on the floor of the Senate.

Anti-smoking campaigns are, in fact, such a low priority in Illinois that lawmakers have chosen to spend the bulk of the state's tobacco-lawsuit settlement money on everything from tax relief to new equipment for a state fish hatchery.

Illinois is also home to a few companies that still allow smoking in the workplace, including Leo Burnett Worldwide, a Chicago ad agency that, coincidentally, counts tobacco giant Philip Morris among its clients.

The lenient attitude has left some conference-goers holding their noses.

Mary Jane Ashley, a public health professor from the University of Toronto, said she was disappointed at having to wade through smokers while waiting for hot dogs at Comiskey Park - something she doesn't have to do at Toronto's baseball stadium.

Some conference attendees say they've even caught whiffs of smoke in the lobby of their hotel, where one store prominently displays cigarette packs and lighters.

Officials at the American Medical Association, a conference co-sponsor, say their home city was chosen for many reasons, including its central location and position as a travel hub.

Dr. Thomas Houston, the AMA's director of science and public health advocacy, said he also hopes the conference will put a spotlight on the city's reputation for smoke-filled rooms and ''encourage people to do something about it.''

Chicago Alderman Ed Smith says he's trying to do just that by leading an effort to ban smoking in all parts of City Hall.

''I'm tired of having to gasp for air,'' Smith said, noting that it's ''grossly unfair'' for his colleagues to ban smoking in some public places but not their own.

Taking a drag during a smoke break Thursday with about a dozen other commodities traders outside the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Paul Zemel said he wasn't so sure that the city is such a smoker's haven.

''It's not like this is Russia or Asia,'' he said. ''If you really want to see some smoking, go there.''

Zemel also said an anti-tobacco conference in his back yard wouldn't inspire him to give up his half-pack-a-day habit.

''I know they're not vitamins. I know they're not healthy,'' he said. ''I guess I'm just a Neanderthal.''


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