After listening to nearly three hours of public comment last week, the County Council voted to extinguish a proposed ban on smoking in public places.
The legislation was defeated with a 4-3 vote after Councilman Hazel Erby, D-University City, who initially had approved the bill as a member of the Justice and Health Committee, announced she would not support the bill. Councilmen joining Erby in defeating the measure were Greg Quinn, R-west county; Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland; and Michael O’Mara, D-north county.
Chairman John Campisi, R-south county, voted in favor of the bill, along with the bill’s sponsors, Skip Mange, R-Town and Country, and Kurt Odenwald, R-Shrewsbury.
“Any law that we pass needs to be fair to everyone and be able to be consistently applied,” Erby announced before the vote. “… I think we need to go back to the table and come up with an ordinance that is more fair and addresses the issues we heard tonight.”
The proposed smoking ban would have prohibited smoking in all enclosed public places, places of employment and outdoor arenas, amphitheaters and dining areas in St. Louis County. The proposal also included several limited exemptions for small bars, membership associations, bowling alley lounges, casinos, private membership clubs, and designated smoking areas in airports, restaurants and bars.
“People have the right to smoke if they choose to,” Mange said before the vote. “If you want to kill yourself, go right ahead, but they do not have the right to poison other people in the room next to them. People have the right to breathe clean air in the public.”
Before the vote was taken, councilmen listened to nearly three hours of comments by residents, business owners, Harrah’s Casino employees and health association leaders. Nearly twice as many people opposed the proposed ban, saying it was unfair and would destroy their businesses.
Several speakers advocated a statewide smoking ban, saying a uniform law would be much more fair to all businesses.
“To treat one restaurant differently from another to create a competitive advantage for one while hurting another is simply bad government,” said John Pelzer of the Missouri Restaurant Association. “It’s anti-business and goes against the grain of every free market and personal choice principal.”
Those who spoke in favor of the ban reminded the County Council of the health hazards of secondhand smoke. Many said they were concerned for employees at establishments that allow smoking while others said they would like to be able to go out to eat or visit a casino without breathing in smoke.
“Some say, just ask to sit in a non-smoking section. Smoke knows no boundaries. Truth be told, businesses that allow smoking offers no non-smoking areas,” said Kay Young, who said she and her husband are limited to smoke-free businesses because of her husband’s sensitivity to smoke from lung cancer and heart disease.
Several of the speakers referred to themselves as the “silent majority” who do not go out to eat or for entertainment at establishments that allow smoke in order to avoid secondhand smoke.
“When smoking is eliminated in restaurants, bars and entertainment venues, people will see the silent majority emerge, from their homes, with their wallets in hand, eager and willing to spend their hard-earned money in establishments that have shut them out for so many years,” said Pat Lindsey of Florissant.
Six employees of Harrah’s Casino spoke against the ban. They said they feared a loss of revenue and employment if the casino was forced to designate its bars, restaurants and 50 percent of its gaming-room floor as non-smoking, as outlined in the proposed smoking ban. Bill Kenna, the regional president of Harrah’s, said the casino’s attempt from 2000 to 2002 to provide a non-smoking gaming area had failed.
“This voluntary commitment to a non-smoking area was not very successful,” Kenna told the council. “Customers chose to frequent areas that were smoking areas in greater numbers because these areas have more people and in their opinion a better gaming environment.”
Because the ordinance would have permitted smoking in small bars that made 60 percent of their gross revenue from liquor sales, several bar and grill owners said the ban would destroy their business. Bill Cieslinksi, owner of Cafe Sports Grill & Bar, said his business relies heavily on the income it receives from bar patrons, many of whom are smokers.
“As a business owner we have a right to be a smoking or non-smoking bar and as a customer, we want our customers to choose whether they want smoking or not,” Cieslinksi said.
Owners of bowling alleys and pool halls also said they could not stay in business if the smoking ban was passed. The proposal would have banned smoking in pool halls and bowling alleys, but would have allowed smoking in separated bowling alley lounges.
“My emotions must be similar to that of an innocent that has been wrongfully convicted of a crime and is about to hear his sentence,” said Chris Seib, owner of Pink Galleon Billiards & Games. “The crime is we’re allowing smoking in pool halls, and the sentence is the loss of my income, the loss of my home, the loss of my ability to pay for my children’s college education and their future needs.”
Mange addressed the business owners’ concerns and said the Justice and Health Committee, which spent about six months preparing the bill, had tried to please as many business owners as possible with the added exemptions.
“Where do you draw the line? I’ve struggled over the difference between restaurants, bars and grills, and bars,” Mange said. “I don’t know where to draw the line. Personally, I would prefer a total ban, which originally proposed. The political practicality is you can’t get a total ban.”
Bonnie Lindhart, public advocacy director of the American Heart Association, told the council that the bill had too many exemptions. After the council rejected the bill, Lindhart told the Call that she hopes that St. Louis County will continue to look into developing a more fair and comprehensive smoking ban.
“It’s very unfortunate that St. Louis County isn’t going to be a leader, but maybe it will be, I don’t know,” Lindhart said.