Dr. Mike Siegel 2012-09-18: “St. Louis Health Director Shows that Money and Lawsuit Threats Do Talk, Suspends Smoking Ban for One Business Only”

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Dr. Michael Siegel

Dr. Michael Siegel is a Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, Boston University School of Public Health. He is a strong supporter of smoke-free air laws but is also willing to criticize those in the tobacco control movement when they act in a way he views as less than scrupulous. He believes such behavior undermines our common public health goals, and I agree with him.

Recently he wrote a highly critical blog after the City of St. Louis caved to the Missouri Athletic Club, amending its 2011 ordinance to now allow smoking in this establishment. I remarked in a previous blog that it was an example of “wealth trumping health.” Dr. Siegel has stronger words for it in his article reproduced below.

Mayor Francis Slay

Note: Although Pam Walker is the target of criticism in Dr. Siegel’s blog, my understanding is that she took this action only after pressure from her boss, Mayor Francis Slay, who is escaping any negative reaction.

After this blog was posted Bill Hannegan e-mailed with a correction of fact, as follows:

“Mr. Pion, your blog statement is not true as I understand this. The ordinance remains unchanged and includes all private clubs with employees. The MAC just stated 7 places where smoking would henceforth be allowed in the MAC building. Health Director Walker replied that she would not enforce the ordinance in those seven spots where the St. Louis City Smoke Free Indoor Air Act of 2009 still bans smoking. Health Director Walker agreed not to enforce the law, she didn’t change the law.

Bill Hannegan”

I’ve re-read the letter from the St.Louis Health Department, Health Commissioner’s Order #1003, and it stipulations exceptions to the smoke-free rule in the case of the Missouri Athletic Club. It’s not strictly an amendment to the city’s original ordinance but it clearly changes its application in the case of this one establishment, on a favored basis, and for no good health reason.


St. Louis Health Director Shows that Money and Lawsuit Threats Do Talk, Suspends Smoking Ban for One Business Only

Pam Walker, St. Louis City Director of Health

Proving that policy makers can still essentially be bought off by wealthy and influential individuals and scared off by the veiled threat of lawsuits, City of St. Louis Health Director Pam Walker has granted an exemption to a private club that serves wealthy people in the city, while requiring all other bars, restaurants, and private clubs to remain smoke-free as called for by a city ordinance.
         A smoking ban went into effect in St. Louis in 2011, barring smoking in all restaurants and other places of employment, but not including bars whose square footage is less than 2000 or private clubs without employees. The Missouri Athletic Club in St. Louis does not qualify as a small bar, nor as a private club without employees. Thus, it is subject to the smoking ban, or at least it is supposed to be subject to the ban.
         However, after threatening the city with a lawsuit and apparently holding backroom meetings with the city, the downtown Missouri Athletic Club was able to win an exemption from the smoking ban from the City Health Department.
         City health department director Pam Walker acknowledged that she was granting an exemption to the aristocratic club earlier this week.

The Rest of the Story

There is no ambiguity about the law and whether it applies to the Missouri Athletic Club. It applies. The Club is neither a private club without employees nor is it a bar. Thus, it is subject to the ban. Or … it should be.
         Clearly, what happened here is exactly what Bill Hannegan (one of our own Rest of the Story readers and commenters) said happened: This is the result of a backroom deal that, with no legal basis, excluded one establishment from the law in order to appease a privileged and influential sociopolitical class of individuals: the city’s politicians.
         This is the worst kind of political elitism. It is exactly the kind of back-door negotiating between government officials and private aristocracy that democratic polity despises.
         And it therefore the worst kind of hypocrisy. The St. Louis Health Department is basically saying that employees and the public need to be protected from the hazards of secondhand smoke, but not if the establishment is an elitist one which serves politicians. Then, public health principles go out the window and a backroom deal can buy you an exemption from the law.
         In St. Louis, the law only applies, I guess, to “lower-class” establishments that serve the 99%. Elitist joints that serve the 1% aren’t subject to the same laws. They can essentially buy their way out of having to follow the law by using their political, economic, and legal clout. Threaten a lawsuit and be able to back up the threat with money and the public health department will back down. No longer will the public health principles of protecting people from the hazards of secondhand smoke be paramount.
         This is hypocrisy at the highest level. If the Missouri Athletic Club is granted an exemption when there is no lawful exemption written into the city ordinance, then why shouldn’t Pat’s Bar & Grill and hundreds of other establishments in the city be allowed to negotiate for exemptions through their own backroom deals?
         As Hannegan asks: “It opens the door for bars to petition for their own exemption. If she can do this for the MAC, why can’t she do this for other establishments?”
         Why didn’t the ordinance simply specify (in a new section – section 17) that any establishment with political and economic clout could apply for an exemption from the law through a special exception that could be arranged through a backdoor deal? That’s exactly what the Health Department is doing, and that is why its director – Pam Walker – has joined a private club of her own – the Colonel Benjamin Church Hypocrisy Hall of Shame – as a gold club member.

Note: By stating that the health department was essentially “bought off,” I am not suggesting that there was any payment of money in exchange for this agreement. Instead, I am arguing that by virtue of the wealthy status of the Downtown Athletic Club and its membership, this business was able to achieve the equivalent of an exemption, while other businesses that have less money and are less well politically connected, have no hope of getting the health department to look the other way.

5 responses to “Dr. Mike Siegel 2012-09-18: “St. Louis Health Director Shows that Money and Lawsuit Threats Do Talk, Suspends Smoking Ban for One Business Only”

  1. MoGASP, I have seen Heatlh Commisioner’s Order #1003 in only draft form. And that doesn’t line up with the seven designated smoking areas the MAC Board approved and Pam Walker agreed not to restrict. I don’t believe Order 1003 ever went into effect. Only the unsigned draft appears with Post article: http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/david-hunn/city-health-director-drops-smoking-charges-against-missouri-athletic-club/article_6c63d140-ff5e-11e1-bec0-001a4bcf6878.html


    mogasp comment: I assumed that even though this was marked “DRAFT” in David Hunn’s recent Post-Dispatch article it had subsequently been approved. That assumption could be wrong, of course.

  2. Makes me glad that I am not a member (of the MAC).

  3. I would like to suggest an alternative to Dr. Siegel’s view on this. You may believe it unlikely, but it IS possible.

    Perhaps Pam Walker visited MAC and found, much to her surprise, that despite there being a number of people smoking around her that she could barely smell any smoke in the air! An experience like that might have made her realize the folly of total bans in facilities with high-end ventilation/filtration.

    As noted MoGasp, I would not expect you to agree with such a decision, if indeed that is the scenario behind what happened, but as you also know, that is the sort of solution that I believe is the most reasonable.

    And if there was a slight smoke scent? That would mean there were probably harmful VOCs in the air at some small concentration. But, if you walked into a restaurant and smelled a juicy steak cooking, That would also mean that they were probably harmful VOCs in the air. In neither case do I think the law should intervene to forbid such things

    – MJM

    mogasp comment: I happened to go out for lunch in an unfamiliar locale today and was looking for a smoke-free restaurant in a town with no relevant ordinance. The first restaurant I tried, based on a recommendation, only had a No Smoking section and although I couldn’t smell SHS I exited. A little further along I found one that was smoke-free and ate there. There were no detectable cooking smells but I suspect if there had been I’d have tolerated them, as I think just about everyone would, unless they were overpowering. Cooking smells are not unexpected in a restaurant and I’ve yet to learn of any laws forbidding them, although there may be some requirements concerning hoods over cook stoves. Smoking is not an essential part of this scene, no more than if I had requested some twigs that I could set alight on my table.

  4. Good points, but I wasn’t speaking of being disturbed by the smell of cooking or smoking, but the harmful emissions. Just because something smells good, or smells bad, or doesn’t smell at all doesn’t necessarily relate to its degree of harmfulness. I believe we *know* (at least to a far greater degree of epidemiological certainty) that cooking fumes increase lung cancer risk (Although I’ll freely admit that at least some – maybe most? – of the studies haven’t corrected for confounders like using local cow patties for cooking fuel!) and we also know that most restaurants cook their foods in the same buildings that customers use for eating. If ventilation in a separate room cannot be counted on to protect someone from tobacco smoke, then it clearly can’t be counted on to protect someone from meat smoke.

    – MJM

    mogasp comment: I’ve probably noted this before, but these other issues should be taken up with the responsible authorities, NOT with MoGASP!

  5. MoGasp, the two issues DO actually relate if you think about it though: If you walked into a smoking restaurant and their ventilation/filtration levels were so good that you didn’t smell the smoke, you might actually be a lot safer than walking into a nonsmoking restaurant, having no idea what their air quality was like, and end up breathing in all sorts of noxious chemicals, fungi, bacteria, and viruses!

    I forget just where I’ve been having the discussion, but it’s quite possible that being in a smoking bar/restaurant during the flu season might be a significantly healthier decision than being in a nonsmoking one (of course juggling risk numbers up and down would give all sorts of results, but it’s certainly possible.)

    – MJM

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