Smoking debate simmers in St. Charles County | St. Louis Public Radio

Smoking debate simmers in St. Charles County

Nov 25, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 25, 2011 - The St. Charles County Council likely won't send an indoor smoking ban next week to county voters. But that doesn't mean the potentially precedent-setting debate is over.

After St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann struck down an attempt to bring a ban to a public vote, the council put forward dual proposals aimed at allaying the Republican chief executive's concerns. But without enough support from council members, an initiative petition seems to be the most likely vehicle to propel the matter to public deliberation.

If a ban that doesn't contain exemptions passes, it would ensure the fast-growing Republican-leaning county would have a more stringent ban than either St. Louis or St. Louis County. And it could prompt a re-examination of the existing ordinances in those two entities.

"I think that obviously any time a surrounding community passes a strong smoke-free law, it lends momentum to the movement in the region," Stacy Reliford, field government relations director for American Cancer Society.

Council Deadlock

While St. Louis City and St. Louis County have adopted indoor smoking bans in recent years, St. Charles County has not. Ehlmann vetoed a bill earlier that would have placed a smoking ban on the ballot, arguing that he wouldn't support any measure that included exceptions.

In response to the veto, Councilman Joe Cronin, R-St. Paul, proposed two amendments to the county's charter. The first, he said, was a "pure" smoking ban in public places "with very few" exemptions. The second, he said, was an exemption for the Ameristar Casino that would last if similar exceptions remained in St. Louis and St. Louis County. The idea was that voters could decide each issue separately.

"I think it makes our community -- and when I say community, I mean the whole St. Louis area -- look backwards," Cronin said. "I'd like to think of us as a progressive community. But in reality, stuff like this makes us look backwards."

But even though the measures are expected to receive a vote on Nov. 28, they aren't expected to pass. That's because Councilwoman Nancy Matheny, R-St. Charles, announced her opposition, leaving proponents without enough votes.

In an interview, Matheny said she worried that a strict ban would put the county at a disadvantage with St. Louis and St. Louis County. Bans in those areas contain a number of exceptions. St. Louis County, for instance, allows for smoking in establishments that make 25 percent or less of their revenue from food.

"I think we should be the same as the metropolitan St. Louis area," Matheny said. "My preference would be statewide. But if we can't do it statewide, we should at least be the same as the metropolitan area. Otherwise, I think too many of our businesses at a disadvantage."

Petition-driven Measure Possible

But Cronin and Matheny both say that the issue could go on the ballot through the initiative petition process. That's the way a successful ban in O'Fallon made it to the voters.

"It's not really over with because even if it gets shot down on Nov. 28 -- you can almost bet there will be a petition to put it on the ballot like there was in O'Fallon," Cronin said.

Wendy Prakop, who served as treasurer for the smoking ban effort in O'Fallon, said the petition process would be considered if the council doesn't pass a smoking ban. She said the goal would be to enact a ban without exemptions.

"That would basically be our next step," Prakop said. "We haven't decided that yet. But I'm sure on Nov. 28 if they vote on this again and [it doesn't pass through the council], that would be our next step. We all have to decide on that together."

Reliford, with the cancer society, said fewer exemptions not only provide health benefits, they are also more straightforward when it comes to enforcement.

"For enforcement and implementation, it's much easier for both the public to understand and for the enforcement agencies to enforce," Reliford said. "Whenever you have to have a list of places that are exempted or not to enforce the law, it definitely makes it more confusing. At the end of the day, it's not a level playing field for everyone."

But St. Charles County Council Chairman Joe Brazil, R-Defiance, questions whether the ban could actually be enforced, since the county has a finite amount of resources and personnel.

"Why do we keep doing this -- piling all these laws on top of each other? We don't have the resources to do anything about it anyway, so what's the point?" Brazil said. "

"Are you going to go down and tell these Korean War veterans, 'Hey, you can't smoke in your private club,'" Brazil added. "They're going to probably do it anyway. Who cares?"

He also said he questioned whether the measure will find support in St. Charles. He noted that a proposal in Cape Girardeau failed.

"I'm not sure people would be in favor of it," Brazil said. "You know that the casinos are going to spend a ton of money opposing it. And even if they have the exclusion on there, they're going to oppose it because how can they not? And I just don't know if people in St. Charles County will pass it, because it's pretty conservative. And I don't know if people think it's government's place."

Jim Franke, senior vice president and general manager at Ameristar Casino Resort Spa St. Charles, said in a statement the company "is always concerned about legislation that could negatively impact our business rights, this includes a smoking ban and the elimination of the casino exemption."

"We have a state-of-the-art air filtration system and defined non-smoking areas within the casino," Franke said. "As a result, we are able to provide a pleasant and comfortable environment for our smoking and non-smoking Guests. A smoking ban will have a significant negative impact on our business, which will lead to a considerable decrease in state and local tax revenue. It will also impact our Team Members' ability to continue to support their families."

The International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association released a statement after Matheny announced her opposition, with CEO Bill Spann stating that "legislated smoking bans deprive business and property owners of their rights to determine their own smoking policies."

But Cronin said other major cities -- such as Austin, Texas, Kansas City, Mo., and Columbia, Mo. -- have enacted indoor smoking bans. And not having one in St. Charles, he said, sends a bad message.

"If you look at strictly the health statistics, there's no controversy involved -- second-hand smoke kills people," Cronin added. "And to disregard that is backwards, there's no other way of saying it."

In any case, Prakop noted the petition effort isn't automatic. According to the St. Charles County Charter, petitioners would need signatures of registered voters "equal in number to at least 10 percent of the total vote cast for Governor in each of those County Council Districts at the last election at which a Governor was chosen."

"There weren't a lot of people involved with the Smoke Free O'Fallon, and if we were to do petitions it would take quite a few signatures in order to get it on the November 2012 ballot," Prakop said. He said that's always been a problem, because say they are against smoking. "But to try do the footwork and do what's needed, there's not a lot of people that come forth and like to do that."

St. Louis County Watches 

Officials in St. Louis County say they will be watching what its neighbor to the west does next year.

Earlier this year, former St. Louis County Councilwoman Barbara Fraser spearheaded an effort to remove exemptions from the county's smoking ban. Fraser -- who serves as the board chairman for Smoke-Free St. Louis -- spoke in front of the St. Louis County Council to expand the ban, along with some business owners who argued the exemptions were hurting business. Since that the time, the council hasn't taken any action.

Dolores Gunn, the director of St. Louis County Health Department, said her office is "very closely" watching what St. Charles County does.

"The perfect [ban] has little exemptions in it, we know that for a fact," Gunn added. "We're still moving toward that direction hopefully in St. Louis County. And I think if St. Charles County is much more successful than we are in passing a smoking ban with little to no exemptions, that would only have a positive effect on moving in that direction a little faster."

Asked about what effect St. Charles County's decision making would have, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said "we'll have to wait and see."

"St. Louis County already has a smoking ordinance in place -- St. Charles does not," said Dooley, adding that the council is examining whether to change the measure.

County Council Chairman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, also said it'll remain to be seen what effect St. Charles County has on St. Louis County's deliberations. The council was divided in 2009 when they voted to enact a ban in the first place.

"It's not only about the quantity of the exemptions, it's also going to be the quality of the exemptions and what the exact nature of those exemptions are," Stenger said. "Just as a general matter, that may affect the council's thoughts on the current ban we have now. It could. I can't say it definitely will, but it could. I would just really need to see what their exemptions are going to be and where they pull sort of their language from."

"Depending on what St. Charles does and considering it's a bordering county, we may or may not need to reconsider our ban," he added.

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers state government and politics.