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St. Louis County Council to examine smoking-ban exemptions

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 17, 2011 - As Sue McNew tells it, the survival of her Florissant business hinges on whether the St. Louis County Council takes action to curb the exemptions to the county's public-smoking ban, or change the ban itself.

The ban applies to most businesses, including restaurants and bars that collect at least 25 percent of their income from food.

McNew says her family sports bar and restaurant, the Locker Room, has seen its clientele plummet since the smoking ban went into effect Jan. 1. Why? Because a neighboring bar that doesn't serve food got an exemption so it can allow smoking.

"There's not a soul in my bar during Happy Hour,'' she said. Smokers come in to snag some appetizers, then head next door where there's no food -- but they can light up.

Her business has 20 employees, but two veterans already have left because less business means less tips -- the mainstay of many bar employees' play.

McNew emotionally laid out her story before the council Tuesday night, as she became the latest in a parade of business owners who have told similar tales in recent weeks.

McNew, 54, acknowledged that she had not been a fan of the ban to begin with. But she told the council that she could live with it, if the playing field was fair.

Afterward, Councilwoman Kathleen Kelly Burkett -- whose district includes McNew's bar and restaurant -- said she is sympathetic to such concerns. "She didn't ask for this,'' said Burkett, D-Overland. Burkett allowed that she has been no fan of the ban, either.

Burkett mainly blames former council chair Barbara Fraser, the chief author of the ban that was approved countywide in 2009. Burkett contended that the ban was "poorly drafted,'' which has led to problems in its implementation.

Fraser, D-University City, has emphasized that she opposed any exemptions -- including additional ones approved by the council right after she left office in late December.

Fraser now heads the group, Smoke-Free St. Louis, which is seeking to eliminate most exemptions. Fraser contends that is the fairest -- and the healthiest -- approach. Last week, she appeared before the council to lay out the results of a new study that showed that, since the ban took effect, indoor air pollution levels have plummeted in public places in the county.

Current council president Steve Stenger, D-Affton, reaffirmed in an interview Tuesday that he's open to making some changes in the ban or the exemptions -- largely in response to appeals like McNew's.

Stenger and Burkett noted that St. Charles County has dropped plans to seek a public smoking ban. Burkett contended that the ban in St. Louis is not as strict -- or, at least, not as enforced -- as the one in place in St. Louis County.

Burkett's bottom line: "I don't want to lose one business because of the ban."

Stenger said the council is asking the county Health Department and Department of Revenue to provide information on how the smoking-ban exemptions were doled out and which businesses obtained them.

Before the county can take any action, he said, "We need to know where we are right now."

In other action

The council gave second-round approval to a bill granting an election this November to the residents of the south county community of St. George, who will determine whether they retain the municipality or dissolve it.

A final council vote is set for next week.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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