It may not be as dramatic as the smoky pool halls in the 1961 movie classic “The Hustler,'' but the stakes are high for management at Big John's Billiards in southwest Omaha.
The Douglas County Health Department conducted a compliance check Friday at Big John's after receiving complaints that the longtime establishment had been openly flouting the statewide ban on smoking in workplaces, restaurants and bars.
“We're making a stand here,'' said Bill Prout, Big John's general manager.
Christine Stewart of the Health Department told Prout outside the pool hall that “we have received complaints'' about smoking in his establishment.
She and a colleague left after a brief inspection, handing Prout a copy of her report. Stewart said she would give her compliance report to supervisors, who may then hand the matter to prosecutors for a possible $100 ticket for a first-time violation.
No one was smoking inside the pool hall Friday morning as Stewart conducted her check, but the complaints, ashtrays and signs on the building's front doors were ample evidence of smoking violations.
The signs read, “This is a smoking establishment'' and “Warning: Smoker friendly pool hall.''
“We're just allowing smoking inside,'' Prout said to Stewart. “And thanks for coming out early and getting this over with.''
Prout, 42, said he remains defiant because he's losing “thousands of dollars a month'' in potential business because smokers aren't patronizing his place.
“Nobody wants to leave in the middle of a game of pool to go outside and smoke a cigarette,'' he said of Big John's.
The business serves food and liquor. It has 30 pool tables, a dozen pinball machines and at least eight smoke-eating filtering machines.
“It's the ultimate place where people go to smoke,'' Prout said of a pool hall.
And because of zoning requirements, he said, Big John's can't erect a beer garden-smoking area outside without eliminating required parking slots.
For years, Prout said, he has fought a legal battle seeking a smoking exemption from the state, like the immunity that cigar bars, tobacco shops and designated hotel rooms receive.
Prout, who is not a smoker, said his father, Will, 70, opened Big John's southwest of 96th and L Streets in 1981. Bill Prout said the state's anti-smoking law has caused the family to lose so much money that he and his father were forced to close their Lincoln Big John's.
“I'd like to keep this place open, but we can't keep operating at a loss,'' he said.
In at least one other smoking case, a Broken Bow, Neb., bar openly defied the smoking ban two years ago.
The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission ordered a one-year probation for Sylvester's Bar & Lounge and its owner, Fred Schumacher, for openly ignoring the statewide ban.
At the time, Schumacher acknowledged he had allowed patrons to continue smoking there, because he didn't agree with the law.
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