Council eyes approval of legislation to place smoking ban on ballot

By EVAN YOUNG

The County Council was scheduled to vote Tuesday, after press time, on the final passage of legislation that would place a public smoking ban referendum on the ballot this November.

Councilmen tentatively approved the bill last week, 4-3. Voting in favor were sponsor Fifth District Councilman Barbara Fraser, D-University City; Third District Councilman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country; Sixth District Councilman Steve Stenger, D-south county; and Seventh District Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin.

Opposed were First District Councilman and Chair Hazel Erby, D-University City; Second District Councilman Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland; and Fourth District Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-north county.

If it survives final passage, the bill still must receive County Executive Charlie Dooley’s signature and a court order for the proposition to show up on the Nov. 3 ballot because the deadline to file ballot proposals for the general election was 5 p.m. Tuesday.

This is the second bill and third version of the smoking ban the council has considered since July 21.

The first bill only called for a referendum and didn’t contain a proposed smoking ban ordinance. Fraser subsequently introduced two substitute bills containing different versions of a ban ordinance.

Councilmen received drafts of those substitute bills just minutes before the legislation came up for perfection July 28 and subsequently voted to delay the vote one week.

The first substitute bill, a “clean-air bill” with limited exemptions, was adopted, but failed to win initial council approval Aug. 4. The second substitute bill, which contained exemptions for casino gambling floors and bars with 25 percent or less total food sales, also was adopted and went on to win initial approval that night.

However, Fraser decided to reintroduce the entire legislation Aug. 11 to avoid any potential legal challenges to the way the council handled the first bill’s perfection.

O’Mara had questioned whether the council’s rejection of the first substitute bill defeated the measure altogether and prevented Fraser from introducing the second substitute bill. The legislation that was up for final approval this week contained the third version of the smoking ban. The latest edition included an exemption for Lambert-St. Louis International Airport’s smoking lounges besides the exemptions from the previous two versions of the ban.

Fraser has maintained that she would prefer a ban with no exemptions but had to be “practical” to move the legislation through the council. She has called her bill a “first step” toward improving public health in the county.

However, many people — including smoking-ban supporters — have indicated they are unimpressed with the lengthy list of exemptions in the second and third versions of the ban.

Owners of businesses that wouldn’t be exempt from the ban, such as bar and grill establishments, claim the measure is unfair and, if approved by voters, would cause them to lose business and/or shut down completely.

“It’s not about health anymore — this is a joke,” said Sue McNew, owner of The Locker Room bar and grill in Florissant.

Even smoke-free advocates, who once lauded Fraser’s effort, now argue that the legislation is too weak from compromises to be effective.

Tobacco-Free Missouri representative Laura Piper, whose organization supports “strong smoke-free ordinances,” said the current legislation leaves casino and certain bar employees exposed to the health dangers of secondhand smoke.

“Exemptions have piled on top of exemptions,” Piper said. “The people of St. Louis County deserve better.”

Fraser’s council colleagues appear divided on the legislation for various reasons. Burkett has said she opposes any smoking ban. Erby prefers a ban with no exemptions.

O’Mara recently said the bill, like similar but failed legislation in 2005 and 2006, was brought up “for political reasons.”

He twice has recommended Fraser’s bill be submitted to the council’s Justice and Health Committee.

Stenger has said he supports a public vote on the smoking ban but could not vote “in good conscience” in favor of a bill with no exemptions because of the economics of the 6th District.

He told the Call in July he was concerned about the effect a clean-air ban would have on south county’s small bars and Pinnacle’s River City Casino in Lemay, which is set to open in January and generate, according to Stenger, some $13 million in tax revenue.

Dooley has said he prefers a statewide smoking ban to a county ordinance, even though a number of smoke-free advocates — including 59th District Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford, D-St. Louis — say such state legislation won’t happen unless municipal and county governments first establish comprehensive bans.