A long front-page story above the fold in today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch focused on some of the anomalies in the newly effective St. Louis City and County smoke-free air laws, and some problems with enforcement. If County Executive Charley Dooley is serious about addressing the issues and county council members are supportive, this would be a good time to review the exemptions in the County ordinance which are creating headaches.
A uniform law was preferred by former County Councilwoman Barbara Fraser, but the first version she introduced, which had few exemptions, such as none for small bars, was rejected by the County Council. That’s when she introduced a watered down version to satisfy Councilman Steve Stegert’s demand to exempt the small bars in his district, casino gaming floors, and Lambert airport’s smoking rooms.
Those exemptions have created a clumsy bureaucratic mess and the sooner they’re removed the better for everyone, including employees still being subjected to secondhand tobacco smoke.
Remember: No one should have endure secondhand tobacco smoke in order to work.
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BY PAUL HAMPEL • firstname.lastname@example.org > 314-727-6234 AND DAVID HUNN • email@example.com > 314-436-2239 | Comments (120 at 1:55 pm 1/24/2011) | Posted: Monday, January 24, 2011 7:00 am
St. Louis County Executive Charlie A. Dooley has called the raft of smoking ban exemptions handed out to county establishments in recent weeks “unacceptable” and said he will meet soon with the County Council to try to change the situation.
“Something has gone astray,” Dooley said in an interview. “What the County Council had intended when they crafted the smoking ban legislation has produced some unintended consequences. The result we have right now — 110 exemptions — is simply unacceptable.”
Both the county and the city of St. Louis began their bans on Jan. 2. In the city, officials have yet to grant an exemption as they wait for inspectors to get to each bar and check owners’ records. But in the meantime, some establishments in both areas — ranging from the Saratoga Lanes in Maplewood to the Missouri Athletic Club downtown — seem to be ignoring the ban.
Dooley said he planned to meet with the council as early as Tuesday to find ways to strengthen the smoking ban in the county. When asked whether possible adjustments could include reversing all exemptions and implementing a complete ban, Dooley said, “Everything will be on the table.”
He added, “The legislation that was passed in 2009 is obviously very flawed, and the responsible thing will be to fix it.”
The county ban was passed by 65 percent of the voters in November 2009. In the city, the Board of Aldermen had approved a similar measure, contingent on county passage.
If it chose, the County Council could change the ordinance on its own without submitting it to public vote again.
In both the city and the county, establishments can continue to allow smoking if their revenue from food does not exceed 25 percent of their combined food-alcohol revenue. The city has an added requirement: A bar must be no larger than 2,000 square feet.
In crafting the legislation, County Council members said they wanted exemptions to protect small neighborhood bars whose owners feared a smoking ban would drive them out of business.
But included among the 110 venues that have received exemptions in the county are larger establishments, including bars inside bowling alleys and restaurant-bars such as Hot Shots. The chain has nine locations in the area, including five in the county and one in the city. Each of the five county locations had annual combined food and beverage sales of over $1 million, but food sales in each accounted for just under 25 percent of the total.
Dooley cited the Hot Shots exemptions as being among the “unintended consequences” of the smoking ban ordinance, which covers both municipalities and unincorporated areas.
“Big places like Hot Shots are not what the County Council had in mind for exemptions,” he said.
Hot Shots owner Daniel Volmert said his business had played by the county’s rules.
“We followed the county’s criteria to the letter. We applied for the exemptions so we could be on a level playing field with other bars that got exemptions,” he said. “If they vote to remove my exemptions, it certainly will hurt my business.”
Saratoga Lanes in Maplewood is among 32 county establishments that have exemptions pending. But last week, patrons freely lit up inside the bowling alley.
County Counselor Patricia Redington said they are breaking the law. “There is no exemption-pending-exemption provision, so smoking is not permitted under the code,” she said.
Saratoga Lanes management did not return calls for comment.
The county’s Health Department is responsible for enforcing the ban. So far, however, the department has not issued citations.
“We’ve had about 75 complaints, but most of them have been regarding places that have the exemptions,” said spokesman Craig LeFebvre.
He said smoking ban enforcement would be handled like restaurant inspections, in which first-time violators will have 10 days to conform before citations are issued.
Penalties are the same in the county and the city: A smoker faces a fine of up to $50 for each occurrence, and an owner of an establishment faces a fine of up to $100 for the first violation, up to $200 for the second in a year and up to $500 for each additional violation in a year.
On Saturday night, organizers of the Cigar Club Annual Smoker, held each January at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Clayton, made clear where they stood on the issue of smoking bans.
“The heat is off and the smoking is on!” a ring announcer bellowed Saturday evening to more than 100 formally dressed patrons who enjoyed pricey cigars and a night of boxing in the hotel ballroom.
Clayton already had its own ban that predated the county’s. James Cole, director of food and beverage for the hotel, contended the event did not violate the ban.
“This is legal in the way we interpret the law,” Cole said. “This is a private event in an enclosed, private room for our guests.”
Clayton’s law allows an exemption for private clubs, which it defines as nonprofit fraternal or social groups that restrict admission to members and their guests.
Bill Hannegan, whose group Keep St. Louis Free has opposed smoking bans across the area, said the hotel’s decision and its allowing the group to meet in the ballroom represented a “very creative interpretation of the law.”
He argued that it was proof of how different interpretations and inconsistent enforcement make smoking bans impractical.
“This just shows how the law doesn’t work,” Hannegan said.
NO CITY EXEMPTIONS
While bars in the county have been put on notice not to presume they are exempt pending official approval, the city has taken the opposite tack.
As of late last week, the city had received 178 exemption applications from bars. So far, the city hasn’t approved any. But city health director Pam Walker said bars that think they’re exempt should act as if they are.
In the meantime, Health Department inspectors are visiting each to ensure they’re no larger than the city law’s 2,000-square-foot limit. They’re also checking sales figures to make sure applicants are earning no more than 25 percent of their income from food.
The city’s liquor license office fields five to 10 phone calls a day on the subject, staff said. And private contractors, paid to help businesses get licenses, say they’re swamped by owner requests to find some way to get an exemption.
“All of a sudden, they’re like, ‘Boy, I’d make more money letting people smoke than flipping hamburgers,'” said Joe Kelly, who has worked for more than 20 years to help businesses get city licenses.
And many are puffing away as they work through the process.
Nick’s Pub on Manchester Avenue, for instance, is too large to get an exemption, according to the city’s most recent measurements. But owner John McDonald said there’s no way he’s going smoke-free now. Instead, he said, he’ll try to remove some square footage in his west St. Louis bar.
Milo’s Bocce Garden, a corner bar and restaurant on the Hill owned by city Alderman Joe Vollmer, was going to allow smoking. Then Vollmer realized the new law does not permit anyone under 21 inside smoking bars. He had to choose between smokers and families.
“People come in after Mass with their families!” Vollmer said.
His website now announces that Milo’s is going smoke-free — but not until Feb. 7.
In downtown St. Louis, the Missouri Athletic Club is still hosting cigar smoking happy hours, ashtrays out on display.
The Health Department visited the club early in January, Walker said, after getting some complaints. She said that a MAC manager openly admitted the club was letting patrons smoke but claimed he couldn’t change the situation without a decision by the board.
Chris Lawhorn, president of the MAC, wouldn’t discuss the issue with the Post-Dispatch. The MAC, he said, is private.
On Friday night, at least a half-dozen men stood around the club’s first floor bar, tumblers in one hand, cigars in the other.
Walker said if the club doesn’t comply by Feb. 4, the city will begin to levy fines.
“They have to comply, like everybody else,” Walker said. “We have to be consistent. We have to be fair. And that means everybody has to comply.”
Steve Giegerich of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.