[The article below by reporter Steve Giegerich was followed the day after by an editorial, Revoke St. Louis County smoking-ban exemptions, accompanied on-line by this Weatherbird cartoon.]
Here’s reporter Steve Giegerich’s opening paragraph in the story below:
“Charlie Dooley was ensconced as county executive, St. Louis fans had a rooting interest in a local NFL franchise and Ferguson was still an obscure suburb when a proposal to tighten a 2011 anti-smoking ordinance first appeared on the agenda of the St. Louis County Council.”
The headline below the fold on the front page of today’s print edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was “Inaction on indoor tobacco ban exemptions draws fire,” and the story’s first paragraph provided an unusual historical introduction to Giegerich’s story. (I can vouch for Ferguson formerly being “an obscure suburb” three years ago because that’s where I live!)
When County Councilman Mike O’Mara, currently the county council chairman, introduced this measure it was hailed by smoke-free air advocates because it was at last going to address some of the most egregious remaining inequities when it comes to protection from secondhand smoke. Instead, Councilman O’Mara has regrettably sat on his hands and done nothing, apparently after getting burned in his initial attempts to move forward with his bill. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch story by reporter Paul Hampel describes a meeting between bar owners and O’Mara which apparently brought this effort to a halt. I wrote about it here:
2013-02-07 P-D: “Bar owners weigh in on move to eliminate smoking ban exemptions in St. Louis County”
Below is today’s story by reporter, Steve Giegerich. There’s an unexpected punch line at the very end.
CLAYTON • Charlie Dooley was ensconced as county executive, St. Louis fans had a rooting interest in a local NFL franchise and Ferguson was still an obscure suburb when a proposal to tighten a 2011 anti-smoking ordinance first appeared on the agenda of the St. Louis County Council.
That was 39 months ago.
Week in and week out, legislation to reconsider and possibly revoke exemptions granted to about 135 businesses under the original law has been set before the council.
And week in and week out since February 2013, the council has tabled the measure.
Anti-tobacco activists, their patience tested by a three-year wait, are calling on the council to act.
The time has come, they say, for an amendment to the smoking ban that will bring the county into conformance with St. Louis. Indoor use of tobacco is prohibited in the city at all but two locations — designated smoking rooms in the membership-only Missouri Athletic Club and the Lumiere Place casino.
The Trophy Room, a St. Louis watering hole near the county line, earlier this year failed to convince a judge that small business owners in the city were unfairly singled out when the 2011 exemptions expired.
Dr. Charles Rehm, chief administrative officer with the St. Louis region’s Mercy Health and a longtime advocate for smoke-free workplaces, is frustrated by the county’s reluctance to align tobacco-free policies in the city and county.
“We’ve made such great progress,” Rehm said. “We’re kind of at the goal line. We need to push it in the end zone and be done with it.”
The County Council, however, seems content to keep playing out the clock.
Councilman Mike O’Mara, the bill sponsor, fully concurs that the county at some point needs to “level the playing field.”
But, preaching caution, O’Mara, D-Florissant, wants to gauge the effectiveness of the expanded city smoking ban before moving the county legislation toward passage.
“We need to wait,” said O’Mara, whose district includes several small, exempted bars. “We have to look at the broader picture.”
Nursing homes exempt
The county law as currently written provides waivers to establishments that collect under 25 percent of gross revenue from the sale of food.
Private and semi-private rooms at nursing and extended-care facilities are also exempt, a provision that spurred Ferguson resident Martin Pion to address the issue at the May 3 County Council meeting.
“The idea of my ending up in a nursing home where indoor smoking is still permitted is a pretty horrifying prospect,” Pion, the co-founder of Missouri GASP — Group Against Smoking Pollution — told council members.
Establishments that serve alcohol or provide care for the infirm may constitute the bulk of the 135 smoking waivers spread across the county.
But the primary beneficiaries of the exceptions are River City Casino and Hotel in the Lemay area and Hollywood Casino in Maryland Heights.
The city and county have stipulated that Lumiere, River City and Hollywood casinos will become smoke-free only if St. Charles County — home to Ameristar Casino Resort — adopts an ordinance to block tobacco use on the other side of the Missouri River.
O’Mara says the absence of a statewide smoking ban makes it difficult to structure a comprehensive regional approach to indoor tobacco use (28 states now have partial or total no-smoking statutes on the books).
Charles Gatton, chairman of Tobacco Free St. Louis, says the absence of state law makes it incumbent on the St. Louis County Council to seize the initiative.
He accuses the council of tacitly promoting a double standard by ignoring the issue for three years.
“Essentially, the (2011) bill was saying there were two classes of citizens,” Gatton told council members last month. “Those deserving of clean air where they worked and those that weren’t — the employees of casinos, taverns, nursing homes and the like.”
Pointing out that lung cancer remains the most lethal form of cancer, Rehm questions why the county continues to support the selective application of an ordinance that subjects hourly-wage earners to secondhand smoke.
“It puts a real burden on people in the service industry,” Rehm said. “It’s one thing if someone wants to smoke in their home. But the people who work in the service industry are not empowered. And in addition to not being empowered, (businesses) are also saying, ‘We are going to put you at risk.’ Why do we not have some empathy for folks that have to work in that environment?”
Rehm said the council aversion to lifting waivers that permit patrons in scores of bars to light up at will is inconsistent with the comprehensive public health model the county introduced in 2015.
“It’s almost shameful that (the county) hasn’t acted,” the physician said.
Labeling it a “political” discussion, a spokesman for County Executive Steve Stenger turned aside a request for an interview on the subject with public health department officials.
Voters approved ban
The origin of the stalled bill dates to a 2009 ballot initiative that saw county voters approve a public smoking ban by a 2-1 ratio.
In the spirit of regional cooperation, St. Louis agreed to extend the decision of county voters to businesses operating within the city limits.
The law granted certain types of businesses in both the city and county — notably the casinos — a five-year exemption from the no-smoking rules. That exemption lapsed on Jan. 1.
O’Mara believes the council needs time to address the economic impact of the no-smoking legislation before imposing a countywide ban.
Gatton rejects that premise, pointing to landmark reporting by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other economic studies that debunk the notion tobacco prohibitions cut into business profits.
“The restaurants (that bar smoking) here will pretty much tell you that their sales went up,” Gatton said. “It clearly hasn’t put anyone out of business. If anything, it has increased their business.”
On the flip side, the presence of smoke at one tobacco-tolerant establishment recently became a deal-breaker for friends out for dinner and drinks.
The haze that enveloped the friends as they entered prompted the men to regroup at a venue where breathing was easy, recalled a member of the party — Mike O’Mara.
(Note: There are plenty of Comments from foes of smoke-free air posted following the on-line story.)