Smoking in restaurants.  For roughly 80% of the American population, smoke-filled restaurants are a nuisance.  The restaurant industry may be the only industry that caters to the minority base of their customers.  This is thanks in large part to the efforts of the tobacco industry, who has even gone as far as establish watchdog groups nationwide to suppress any local municipality or state government from passing smoking ordinances in dining facilities.  As a result, non-smokers are subjected to the same carcinogens as those who ingest cigarettes and are just as susceptible to the rash of health programs associated with tobacco use.

As a facet to The Illinois Department of Public Health’s recently launched counter-marketing program focused on enabling teens to get involved and change attitudes about tobacco use in their community (known as I Decide), an initiative to clean the air in Winnebago County’s restaurants was a top priority.  Prior to this program, only 1 of the more than 450 restaurants in the county participated in the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Smoke-Free Restaurant Recognition Program.  The goal of the restaurant outreach was to expand the network of restaurants in Winnebago County and prove to the tobacco industry that eating and smoking are not synonymous.

MWW’s East Rutherford and Chicago office conducted a comprehensive outreach to restaurants where teens and families frequent.   With our youth advocates, we presented our case to various restaurant owners.  At each meeting, we supplied comprehensive informational materials full of facts on the damaging effects of second hand smoke, how cities and states that have banned smoking in restaurants have not only survived but thrived, and inserted a sign up sheet to join the cause. 

The student activists faced an uphill challenge.  The teen advisory panel members met significant resistance at most of the restaurants.  At times, it seemed as if the managers had rehearsed a canned answer when the initiative was presented to them.  Incidentally, this canned answer was later discovered within the Illinois Restaurant Association’s charter. However, each restaurant manager admitted that smoking in restaurants is a serious health problem, that dividing the restaurant between smokers and non-smokers was extremely ineffective, and that they would abide by any law set forth by the state outlawing smoking in restaurants.
Undaunted by numerous rejections, the team pressed on. 

Through repetition, the advocates became more relaxed and more confident in their cause.  Their professionalism and enthusiasm impressed managers, who decided to enact change and join the network.  At the conclusion of our outreach, over 80 restaurants in Winnebago County signed on the dotted line and are now proud members of the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Smoke-free Restaurant Recognition program.  Members of this program have been proactive in assisting the entire campaign through promotional giveaways and student recruitment outreaches.  One restaurant in particular was so compelled by our grassroots effort that they wrote a letter to the editor of the local daily newspaper, The Rockford Register Star, and challenged other restaurants to follow suit and take a stand against Big Tobbaco. 

This campaign caught the attention of Rockford (Winnebago County seat) Mayor Doug Scott, who held a press conference commending the students for their hard work and for the difference they have made in the community.

In all, the restaurant outreach succeeded in teaching the youth advocates a lesson in courage and determination.  They had the courage to initiate change and through their determination, they inspired adults to enact better policy.