Smoking ban ballot proposal again eyed by County Council

By EVAN YOUNG

UPDATE: The County Council gave initial approval Tuesday to a smoking ban referendum that would exclude both casino gambling floors and a limited number of bars if it receives voter approval in November.

Councilmen voted 4-3 to initially approve legislation containing those exemptions after bill sponsor, Fifth District Councilman Barbara Fraser, D-University City, did not receive council support for an initial “clean-air” version of the ban — which only contained exemptions for private places, such as residences and clubs.

The bill will be up for final approval at the Aug. 11 council meeting, but Fraser motioned this week to hold the bill another week and vote on its final passage Aug. 18, which is the deadline for putting propositions on the Nov. 3 ballot without a court order.

Read next week’s Call for the full story.

The County Council was scheduled to revisit a public smoking ban ballot proposal this week after stifling an initial vote on the issue last week.

Councilmen were scheduled Tuesday, after press time, to consider two substitute bills containing different versions of a public smoking ban referendum that would go on the ballot Nov. 3.

The council voted July 28 to delay an initial vote on the legislation after receiving final drafts of the two referendums only minutes before the bill came up for perfection.

As introduced two weeks ago, the bill called for an election for county residents to vote on a smoking ban but did not contain the proposal itself.

The bill’s sponsor, Fifth District Councilman Barbara Fraser, D-University City, said “last-minute” changes to the substitute bills prevented her from making the documents available for council — and public — review until after the meeting began last week. Fraser also said the bills’ language could change before the next meeting.

One version of the ban that was up for consideration Tuesday was a “clean-air bill” that would prohibit smoking in all enclosed public spaces. The other version would exempt casino floors and bars where alcohol accounts for at least 75 percent of total sales.

However, the latter ban also contained a provision that would remove either of those exemptions if St. Louis city, St. Charles County or the state of Missouri established a ban that didn’t exempt casinos or bars.

A possible public smoking ban in St. Louis city is contingent upon the passage of one in the county.

Both versions of the county ban would exclude private areas such as residences, private nursing home rooms and paid-membership clubs. Even though the referendums weren’t yet available for public viewing, 24 speakers addressed Fraser’s legislation during an hour-long public forum at last week’s council meeting.

Supporters of the ban praised Fraser for her efforts to improve public health in the county. Others encouraged the council to support an across-the-board smoking ban with no public exemptions.

“Here are the facts: Secondhand smoke is a major health hazard which causes disease and death among exposed non-smokers,” said Martin Pion, president of the Missouri Group Against Smoke Pollution. “The risk cannot be eliminated by ventilation or filtration systems, but only by requiring smoke-free indoor environments.

“Should certain classes of employees be covered and others left out? Is it acceptable to pick and choose? I think not … Protection must be comprehensive.”

Tobacco products will eventually “join the ranks” of other materials society has deemed harmful, such as asbestos and lead-based paint, Kirkwood resident Michele McDonald said.

“I believe people have the right to waste their money, destroy their health and get cancer if that’s what their hearts desire,” McDonald said. “What they don’t have a right to do is poison my air. Your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins, and your right to blow carcinogenic toxins into the air also ends where my nose begins.”

But speakers who opposed the bill — predominantly county bar and restaurant owners — argued smoking establishments would lose significant business if voters approved a ban proposal.

Chris Seib, who owns Pink Galleon Billiards and Games on the corner of Butler Hill and Lemay Ferry roads, said pool halls “don’t work without cigarettes.”

“I have a south county location that is literally five minutes from Jefferson County. Eighty to 90 percent of my customers smoke. They’re going to drive right on down the interstate, jump off the Imperial exit and go to my competitors,” Seib said. “… I think this going to kill my business, I really do.”

Opponents also said casino and limited bar exemptions are discriminatory against businesses such as bar-and-grill establishments that have significant — but not 75 percent — alcohol sales.

“If you want to stop smoking, stop the sale of cigarettes. Don’t take it back on the people that work hard to build their business …,” said Ken Breier, a restaurant owner from Town and Country.

Scott Coleman, owner of Some Other Place Bar and Grill on Lemay Ferry Road, said his business already spent thousands of dollars six years ago to install an air filtration system — which several speakers proposed as an alternative to a smoking ban — to comply with county law.

Coleman said he believed the matter was a “statewide” issue and acknowledged County Executive Charlie Dooley, who has said he would prefer a statewide public smoking ban to a county ordinance.

Fraser’s fellow council members also expressed their opinions on the legislation when the substitute bills’ language came to light last week.

During a caucus before the council meeting, First District Councilman Hazel Erby, D-University City, questioned Fraser’s motive for providing for a casino exemption.

“If we’re not taking care of all citizens, then why bother?” Erby told Fraser. “If our real concern is public health — and the casinos in my mind are one of the largest venues where people are exposed to secondhand smoke — then why not include casinos (in the ban)? The employees at the casinos are just as important as employees anywhere else.

Erby, who said she would prefer the “clean-air bill,” referenced a similar but unsuccessful smoking ban the council considered in 2005 and the efforts of casino officials to defeat it.

“They attended the meeting and asked us to vote against it,” she said. “They brought all their employees, except the employees who called me on the phone that day and said ‘Why are we being excluded? Our health is just as important, and there a group of us here who would like to see that bill passed, but to include casinos.’

“… And I think it’s unfair to say we are about public health and exclude a whole group of people … Then that makes me wonder, what is the motive for passing this? What is the real motive for not including everyone?

Fraser replied she had to be “practical” and “allow for compromise” when drafting that version of the ban to ensure it would pass out of the council and show up on the ballot.

She added it was better to take “a strong first step than no step at all” and said the ban could grow “stronger” in years to come.

Second District Councilman Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland, who was on the council and voted against the smoking ban in 2005, and a second ban in 2006, said during the council meeting she “probably” wouldn’t support the effort this time, either.

After the July 28 meeting, Sixth District Councilman Steve Stenger, D-south county, told the Call he supported a public vote on the smoking ban but said he was concerned about the effects a no-exemption ban would have on more than 50 small bars in south county — and the Pinnacle River City Casino opening in Lemay in January, which Stenger said is expected to generate some $13 million in tax revenues.

“If we have a pure non-smoking bill, I don’t think I can vote on that in good conscience given the economics of our district,” Stenger said. “But if I have a bill before me that has some exemptions — the appropriate exemptions that don’t give an unfair advantage to anyone, but are reasonable exemptions — that I can do.”

He later clarified the smoking ban would have to include exemptions for both casinos and small bars to win his vote.

On Saturday, Stenger told the Call that, like Fraser indicated, the bills’ language had changed considerably since last week.

He said “language I want” likely would be added to the exemption version of the ban by Tuesday.

Fraser did not respond to a Call request for an update on the bills by press time.