NBC 5 Investigates

Controversy Arises Over Secondhand Smoke Accusations in Waukegan

A community activist alleges that city and county officials are not doing enough to protect her from the secondhand smoke that has migrated into her building in Waukegan.

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Two storefronts in downtown Waukegan have been battling over a secondhand smoke conflict for years.

Julie Contreras operates a community center and church in a building that LULAC has owned since 1974 on Genesee Street. A few years ago, ‘A Cuban Experience’ moved in next door, and according to Contreras, they promised to install the proper ventilation for their smoking lounge, but never did.

In 2008 the state implemented the Smoke Free Illinois Act to protect the public from secondhand smoke. Tobacco retailers are exempt, if they are in a freestanding building, their smoke does not migrate to prohibited areas, and they do not own any type of liquor license.

Technically, the two buildings don’t share a wall, but there’s no discernable space between the structures. And according to the results of an air quality test commissioned by Contreras, smoke is migrating into LULAC’s building at levels of 120%.

An investigation launched by the Lake County Health Department also revealed that ‘A Cuban Experience’ does have a liquor license, according to emails obtained by NBC 5 Investigates.  After questioning the City of Waukegan about issuing this license, the city requested to take over the case, stating that they viewed it as just a neighbor dispute.

Julie Contreras had initially filed a complaint with the City of Waukegan, who then referred her to the County. Contreras stated that after she complained, the City of Waukegan investigated her building and issued her two city code violations for having two bedrooms.

Robert Long, who represents the City of Waukegan says that Contreras did not have the proper license until recently and the city did not detect any smoke when visiting the LULAC building.

“If you live next to a pig farm, it’s probably going to smell and sound like pig…if you set up your business next to a tobacco shop you probably should expect some flow over,” Long added.

NBC 5 Investigates also found that in the last 11 years the Lake County Health Department received a total of 401 claims, 50 of those in Waukegan, but not a single one resulted in a fine from the county. NBC 5 Investigates found that Waukegan revoked the license of one smoking lounge on this same block on Genesee Street in 2012, saying it wasn’t in a freestanding building. 

At the end of 2019, 'A Cuban Experience' filed a lawsuit against Contreras and LULAC, among others. The claim accuses her of defamation and operating a church in violation of city code.

NBC 5 Investigates attempted to interview the owners of 'A Cuban Experience' and their attorney but was unsuccessful. LULAC’s national offices did not comment on the lawsuit, but a spokesperson from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office confirmed they also received Contreras’ complaint and an investigation is underway by their environmental enforcement division.

To report secondhand smoke in Illinois call (866)973-4646

Additional Resources:

Illinois Tobacco Quitline
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
U.S. Surgeon General’s Reports
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