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County Council may, or may not, entertain changes to public smoking ban

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 3, 2011 - For the second week in a row, the St. Louis County Council heard complaints about the county's public-smoking ban in effect since Jan. 1.

Former Ballwin Alderman Charles Gatton, co-chair of the successful 2009 countywide campaign, told the council at Tuesday night's meeting that he and allies were pleased with the general effects of the ban on smoking in most public places.

"Businesses didn't close by the droves. Many businesses have found that their customer count and revenues have increased," Gatton said. "I hear almost weekly from county residents that are thrilled with the new environment, and employees I talk with are also thrilled. A recent survey done for the American Cancer Society showed that voters really like this ordinance and want it strengthened."

The down side, he continued, was that the county has granted more than twice as many exemptions as ban supporters had initally been told would be granted. More than 150 businesses have gotten them, Gatton said.

Ken Brier, who owns Schottzies Bar & Grill in south county, complained that he faced unfair competition from restaurants that had wrangled exemptions.

"Before the ban, everything was on a level playing field," Brier said. With the ban, he continued, smokers flock to the restaurants and bars with the exemptions. Those without the exemptions lose out.

One of the leaders of the new effort is former council chair Barbara Fraser, who helped put the ban on the countywide ballot. She now is board chairman of Smoke-Free St. Louis. Fraser had addressed the board last week.

Afterward, council chairman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, said he sympathized with some complaints. "I would be in favor of a ban with fewer exemptions,'' he said.

But Stenger emphasized that of the seven council members, "some want change, and some don't. It's difficult to arrive at a consensus."

Stenger acknowledged that he is closely watching how neighboring jurisdictions are dealing with the issue. St. Louis has a ban similar to St. Louis County's, while St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann recently blocked an attempt to put a smoking ban on a countywide ballot.

The implied upshot: St. Louis County officials don't want to take any action that puts its businesses -- and casinos -- at a competitive disadvantage to those in surrounding areas. That's one reason that the county's exemptions were changed late last year to include casino lounges.

Stenger said that some council members were examining the issue. But he added, "Don't expect a bill within the next three months."

Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, said he wasn't sure how many council members wanted to revisit the controversial issue. "I don't think you will see anybody doing anything without four votes,'' he said.

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