O’Mara introduces bill to remove exemptions from smoking ban

Measure referred to council’s Justice, Health and Welfare Committee

By Mike Anthony

Legislation to remove exemptions from the county’s ban on smoking in public places is an effort to provide “a fair playing field,” according to the bill’s sponsor, 4th District Councilman Michael O’Mara, D-Florissant.

The ban went into effect Jan. 2, 2011, after roughly 65 percent of county voters approved it in November 2009.

O’Mara last week introduced the legislation to remove the exemptions and immediately referred it to the County Council’s Justice, Health and Welfare Committee, which will conduct a hearing on the measure, the councilman said.

“… I’m not here to try to reinvent the wheel, but there’s some concerns over some exemptions and business owners have approached me and the nonsmoking coalition has approached me ….,” O’Mara said at the Jan. 15 council meeting.

Noting the ban has been in effect for two years, he said his intention is to have “a fair playing field for those that have exemptions and those that don’t have exemptions …”

The proposed legislation seeks to remove exemptions for cigar bars, drinking establishments and casino gaming areas — River City Casino and Hollywood Casino St. Louis. The existing ordinance provides an exemption for small bars where food makes up no more than 25 percent of gross sales.

As proposed, O’Mara’s legislation would retain exemptions for private residences, private clubs, performers on stage in a theatrical production, private nursing-home rooms, retail tobacco businesses, permanently designated smoking rooms at hotels and Lambert-St. Louis International Airport’s smoking areas.

O’Mara’s legislation drew speakers both against and for the proposal during the public forum at last week’s council meeting.

Bill Hannegan, of Keep St. Louis Free, urged the council not to scrap the existing exemptions.

“… St. Louis County voters approved the smoking ban that included an exemption for adult businesses like bars, casinos and cigar shops. Please don’t scrap the exemption county voters voted for. Instead, tweak the exemption to make it more fair,” he said.

“I suggest substituting over 21 for food sales as the criterion of exemption. If a business is willing to limit its patronage to adults, then it can be exempt from the smoking restrictions. Under such a rule, very few businesses would be hurt. Tweaking the existing exemption in this way is closer to the will of the voters than scrapping the exemption altogether.

“Councilmen, the currently exempted businesses are the ones economists warn are most likely to be hurt by smoking bans. If you scrap the exemption altogether and these businesses fail, you have to blame yourselves, you can’t blame county voters …,” Hannegan added.

A member of the O’Fallon City Council, Jim Pepper, told O’Mara his legislation “goes up against everything that I believe in — the freedoms that have been guaranteed by the Constitution. I’d like to ask each and every one of you — or rather tell each and every one of you — if I own a business establishment, you do not have a right to enter that establishment. You are being invited in to partake of that business on your volition. You don’t have a right to tell me to do anything.

“Because I might sell shellfish, you don’t have the right to tell me I can’t because you’re allergic to them …”

Pepper said a similar smoking ban had a disastrous impact on O’Fallon businesses.

“… O’Fallon is the second-largest city east of Columbia, second only to the city of St. Louis. In 2010, O’Fallon imposed a no-exemptions smoking (ban) like the one Councilman O’Mara proposes. We’ve lost nine businesses so far due to the smoking ban, with others on the verge of closing. Multiply this by the size of St. Louis County and you can see where this will have a disastrous effect on the county businesses …”

He later said, “Just remember, when St. Louis County businesses are forced to close because you removed voter-approved exemptions from the ban, you will be held responsible at the ballot box. Do the right thing and get government out of our businesses. Don’t throw up roadblocks. Let them compete. And those that can’t compete, they’ll die …”

Restaurant owner Ken Grober told the council he favored removing the exemptions.

“I own three restaurants, two in the county, one in the city, and we’re getting ready to open up another one in the county,” he said. “They’re all smoke free and we have had absolutely no complaints whatsoever. In fact, people call and they ask, ‘Are you smoke free?’ before they come in. Being an asthmatic myself, there’s many bars I would love to go to, but I can’t because of my asthma without taking my inhaler with me.

“But the one thing I’ve noticed everywhere we go is that, whether it’s in St. Louis or other cities, nonsmoking is becoming a way of life, and I don’t see where it’s affecting anybody’s business,” Grober said. “If you’re doing a bad job of running your business, I think that’s going to affect your business a lot more than whether you have smoking or nonsmoking …”

Marty Ginsburg, who owns the Sports Page in Chesterfield, also said he favored removing the exemptions.

“Councilman O’Mara, what you’re attempting to do, in my opinion, is fabulous. Every since this ordinance was passed two years ago, we’ve met with (County Executive) Mr. (Charlie) Dooley. We’ve met with this person, that person, and it’s all about a level playing field. The way the vote was set up, I’m sorry, but the people that said they voted for exemptions, that’s not true …,” he said.

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.

The council can change the ordinance without placing the matter before voters.