Originally Published on: 2011-02-02
By Evan Young
As the St. Louis County Council eyes toughening the county’s ban on smoking in public places, “anything and everything” should be on the table, according to the council chairman.
Sixth District Council Chairman Steve Stenger, D-south county, told the Call he would consider removing the smoking ban’s exemptions, some of which he previously favored.
County Executive Charlie Dooley asked the council last week to review and possibly “tighten up” the ban, which went into effect Jan. 2 after roughly 65 percent of county voters approved it in November 2009.
The ordinance provides for several exemptions, including small bars where food makes up no more than 25 percent of gross sales. More than 100 county businesses have obtained “certificates of exemption” from the ban — a consequence Dooley said his administration wasn’t expecting.
The county executive said some businesses were exempted that he didn’t believe would qualify under the ordinance.
“We are going on record that we got some unintended results …,” Dooley told the council during a caucus last week. “We expected some missteps — we got more than we anticipated — but we did expect some.”
The council can change the ordinance without placing the matter before voters. However, Dooley said no bill has been drafted, and his administration hasn’t proposed any specific amendments.
The smoking ban ballot measure, Proposition N, received 90,229 “yes” votes — 65.4 percent — and 47,820 “no” votes — 34.6 percent — in the November 2009 election. Approval of Prop N triggered a similar smoking ban in St. Louis city.
Stenger said Prop N received “overwhelming support” across south county. Although the issue involved a “great deal of compromise,” the vast majority of public places in the county now are smoke-free, he said.
The council debated at length during the summer of 2009 over how strong of a smoking ban to place before voters that November. Now-former Democratic Councilwoman Barbara Fraser, who spearheaded the effort, pushed for a true “clean-air act” with limited exemptions. She eventually settled for a proposal with several exemptions to secure needed votes from her council colleagues. The measure passed the council with a 4-3 vote.
The smoking ban currently exempts casino floors, bars where food makes up no more than 25 percent of gross sales, private residences, private nursing-home rooms, private clubs, cigar bars and performers who smoke on stage as part of a production. Lambert St. Louis International Airport’s smoking lounges also were exempted, but the airport went smoke-free Jan. 2.
Stenger supported placing Prop N on the ballot only after the casino floor and small bar exemptions were included. At the time he expressed concern that an across-the-board smoking ban could negatively impact south county bars and Pinnacle’s River City Casino in Lemay, which opened nearly a year ago.
After the election, though, Stenger told the Call the ban’s exemptions could be phased out if the county’s economic outlook improved.
“We’re probably moving toward a time when those exemptions could be removed at some point,” he said in November 2009. “I think it’s important to see what the economics of the situation are in 2011 … but I just have a sense that in the future that’s probably where this issue is heading.”
Stenger stressed last week that while the goal of the smoking ban is to “expose as little of our public to secondhand smoke as possible,” officials must still keep the local economy in mind as they consider strengthening the law.
“Everything has to be on the table in order to be fair to everybody,” Stenger said.
The issue drew a handful of speakers to last week’s council meeting. Ballwin resident Charles Gatton, who led the pro-Prop N group Citizens for Cleaner Air, urged the council to toughen the smoking ban, particularly by removing the exemption for casino floors.
“The message we are sending is that we do not value the health of their employees or patrons,” Gatton said.
As for small bars, Gatton contended many establishments have applied for and received an exemption certificate that are ineligible under the smoking ban ordinance. Others are ignoring the ban altogether, he said.
“You can address this by tightening up the ordinance or by simply revoking the exemptions, which is what I strongly encourage you to do,” Gatton said.
Bill Hannegan, director of Keep St. Louis Free, which opposed Prop N, noted that bar owners granted exemption status have 100 days to prove to the county Department of Revenue that food doesn’t make up more than 25 percent of their total sales.
“I know that there’s been concern about the size of the list, that too many places have been exempted. Well they’re exempted now, but … I’m very certain that a lot of those bars are not going to be able to allow smoking three or four months from now because they won’t stand up to the examination of the Department of Revenue,” he said.
He asked the council to “give this law a chance to work.”
“The list right now is not really worth much,” Hannegan said. “Six months from now we’ll know a lot more, and I wish you all would wait until then.”