Smoking concerns cloud city’s hosting of Big Ten tourney

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Indiana’s lack of a comprehensive smoking ban is taking center court with a group of Michigan State University alumni upset that their alma mater is paired this week with an Indianapolis bar where patrons are free to light up.

Certain downtown pubs and restaurants traditionally are matched with Big Ten universities during the conference’s men’s basketball tournament, which has been held annually in Indianapolis since 2008. This year’s event runs Thursday through Sunday.

The idea is to promote school spirit and give out-of-state visitors familiar places to congregate between games. Some bars have been hosting the same team for years, many because they have some kind of tie to the school. Kilroy’s Bar & Grill, for instance, has a connection to a bar of the same name in Bloomington. The bar on South Meridian Street is the designated gathering spot for fans of the Indiana University Hoosiers.

Kilroy’s is among eight non-smoking venues devoted to Big Ten universities. What disturbs the MSU alumni is that their school is paired with one of three smoking establishments—the Slippery Noodle Inn on South Meridian Street.

The other two are The Pub (University of Iowa) on East Georgia Street and O’Reilly’s (University of Michigan) on South Pennsylvania Street.

“Many Michigan State fans will not be happy leaving our smoke-free state and traveling to Indianapolis where we will have to put our health at risk by inhaling the secondhand smoke of others,” the MSU alumni wrote in a letter received by IBJ.

Michigan, whose ban took effect last year, joins Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin as Midwestern states that prohibit smoking in all public places. Nationwide, 27 states now boast comprehensive bans.

The Indiana House of Representatives passed a smoking-ban bill in January peppered with exemptions, such as bars, taverns, casinos and clubs run by fraternal organizations. The bill has been assigned to a Senate committee.

Indianapolis has a partial smoking ban, but allows smoking in establishments that prohibit anyone under the age of 21 to enter.

That three downtown bars waving Big Ten university flags this year allow smoking is a non-issue for the Indiana Sports Corp. It selects the universities and paired Iowa this year with The Pub, whose owners expressed interest in participating in the promotion, Sports Corp. spokesman John Dedman said.

“To be honest, we haven’t heard a whole lot of feedback (about smoking) from the alumni associations or the fans in general,” he said.

Neither has Hal Yeagy, a Purdue University graduate and owner of the Slippery Noodle Inn. His bar’s affiliation with MSU started back in 1980 when Indianapolis hosted its first of six college men’s basketball Final Fours.

Visits to the Slippery Noodle by Jud Heathcote, former longtime men’s basketball coach of the Michigan State University Spartans, helped keep the relationship intact through the years.

Yeagy dismissed the concerns from the MSU alumni, simply stating that the Slippery Noodle Inn “is a bar,” where smoking is allowed.

“It’s a very good draw for us,” Yeagy said of the tournament. “I’ve heard nothing specifically from Michigan State or Michigan State alumni.”

Indianapolis City-Council Councilor Angela Mansfield, though, thinks that could change as residents of smoke-free states become more acclimated to the relatively new bans.

Mansfield, a Democrat, has tried unsuccessfully to strengthen the city’s ban to include all public places and thinks such a ban might have a better chance of passing after the November elections, if Democrats can assume Council majority.

“It’s so embarrassing that we’re supposedly the amateur athletic capital of the world and we’ve got such an unhealthy environment when people come to visit,” she said.

The Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association, charged with marketing the city to tourists, businesses and organizations, is taking a neutral approach in the debate.

“Anytime a convention or major event has a visitor who expresses a concern, it’s our job to take note and look at their concern’s overall impact on the tourism and hospitality industry," ICVA spokesman Chris Gahl said.

Smoke Free Indy, a coalition dedicated to reducing secondhand smoke, will be distributing guides at downtown bars and hotels listing smoke-free establishments.

Its chairwoman, Melissa Lewis, echoed Councilor Mansfield’s sentiments.

Said Lewis: “We’re definitely becoming the ashtray of the Midwest.”

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