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Clayton considers smoking ban -- while St. Louis and St. Louis County stand on sidelines

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 29, 2009 - The air is thick with talk about smoking bans -- everywhere from cities to college campuses -- but the prospect of any major new smoking ban may be hurt by politicians adopting divergent strategies.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay says he supports a restriction on smoking in public places but only if St. Louis County signs on at the same time. But Charlie Dooley, St. Louis County's county executive, is resistant to that idea. He wants state government to take the lead.

Meanwhile, Clayton Mayor Linda Goldstein, frustrated at the slow pace of progress, says her city is ready to go it alone, if necessary.

Clayton has invited public comments on an anti-smoking ordinance, and St. Louis and St. Louis County leaders are watching that debate to see what compromises might be needed for new laws to pass in their jurisdictions.

Is Clayton ready to go it alone?

Clayton held a public hearing April 28, during which residents gave overwhelming support for the idea of a ban on smoking in public places. Eighteen residents spoke; 15 favored a comprehensive ban. The breakdown is similar to that of a recent poll in Clayton in which 72 percent said that they supported a smoking ban.

Clayton's proposal is broadly similar to a bill under discussion in St. Louis but is likely to come to a vote sooner. The bill would affect restaurants and bars, shopping malls and sports arenas, among other places. The only significant exemption is for hotels, which could designate 20 percent of their rooms as smoking rooms. Clayton's draft bill also leaves open the possibility of smoking on restaurants' patio dining areas.

At the public hearing, Ben Uchitelle, the former mayor of Clayton, said many predicted smoking restrictions would hurt local businesses when they were introduced in the 1980s. (Larger restaurants had to set aside a quarter of their space as non-smoking.) But that didn't happen, he said, and the city's restaurant scene has flourished ever since. Similarly, restaurants should not fear a full smoking ban because people will quickly adapt to the new reality, he said.

Dr. Jerry Cohen, a cardiologist at St. Louis University and a Clayton resident, said the public health considerations should trump businesses' worries. "The scientific evidence indicates no risk-free level of exposure to smoke," he said. A typical bar or restaurant worker is more at risk to second-hand smoke than a non-smoker who lives with a smoker, according to the data, he said.

Siobhan Jones, a student at Clayton High School, said students spend time in school learning about the hazards of smoking, but the places in which teenagers socialize and are employed often allow smoking, undercutting the anti-smoking message.

Those opposed to a ban framed it as a matter of government over-reaching. "This is a blatant violation of private property rights," said Joseph Nonnenkamp, a resident. Businesses should be able to set their own policies, as they do now, and if patrons really object to tobacco smoke, they can avoid that restaurant or bar, he said.

Currently, Clayton has about 80 restaurants, and 60 do not allow smoking, according the Missouri Restaurant Association.

A second public hearing to hear Clayton business owners is scheduled for May 12 at the Center of Clayton.

Before Clayton's aldermen can vote, the bill's legal language must be tightened. Aldermen must decide whether the bill would allow for outdoor smoking areas at restaurants and whether entryways should also be included in a ban.

The council could vote as early as May 26.

An uneven playing field

The Restaurateurs Alliance of Clayton, a new group, has formed to oppose a smoking ban. The group argues that if the bill passes, their establishments would be at a competitive disadvantage simply because they are in Clayton.

Pat Bergauer, executive vice president of the Missouri Restaurant Association, echoed that viewpoint, saying she is especially concerned about cities tackling the issue one by one because piecemeal legislation creates an uneven playing field.

"This is a terrible economy," she said, "and this is just another thing that could make the difference between (restaurants) making it or not."

Ballwin is the only local muncipality with a smoking ban. A fact sheet issued by Ballwin says that some restaurants' gross receipts improved after the ban while others saw a decline. But, according to the fact sheet, the sales decreases were part of trend that preceded the ban.

Chili's, Kreiger's and All Star, three restaurants in the vicinity, have closed since the ban. Some blame the smoking ban, but these establishments were not within the city limits and therefore were not effected by the ban.

Walt Young, mayor of the city from 2005 to April 2009, said that overall the ban has been welcomed. Many business owners who were initially skeptical have told him that if Ballwin's ban were repealed tomorrow, they would keep a no-smoking policy in place, he said.

In St. Louis, a concern for small business

While Clayton is deep in discussion about a smoking ban, St. Louis, the region's biggest municipality, is also looking at the issue.

Alderwoman Lyda Krewson, D-28th Ward, which includes the restaurant-rich Central West End, has drafted a bill broadly similar to Clayton's proposal. But, as yet, no formal hearings have been set.

A few years ago, said Krewson, one could debate just how harmful smoke in the workplace truly is, but now the scientific evidence about tobacco smoke's ill effects is overwhelming.

The question is how to clamp down on smoking without pushing smokers across city lines to patronize other bars and restaurants, she said.

"I don't want to play Pin-Up Bowl off against Blueberry Hill," Krewson said, referring to two popular establishments in the Delmar Loop owned by Joe Edwards. Blueberry Hill is in University City in St. Louis County. Pin-Up Bowl, four blocks to the east, is in St. Louis.

For that reason, the city is not prepared to go it alone, Krewson said. Any bill that passes would become effective only if a similar bill takes effect in neighboring St. Louis County. Krewson said it would be preferable for the state to take the lead, but because that's unlikely, legislation at the regional level is needed.

"Four years ago, this would have been a progressive measure, but now Missouri is playing catch up," she said. Thirty five states have some smoking ban. In addition, several Missouri communities have bans: Ballwin, Chillicothe, Columbia, Independence, Kansas City, Kirksville, Lee's Summit, Nixa, Kansas City and North Kansas City.

Elsewhere, statewide bans passed only after major metro areas had begun moving in that direction. In the last two years Kansas City and Columbia put smoking bans in place, and Krewson said this is "a chance for St. Louis to show some leadership."

Slay predicted "some sort of smoke restriction in the city soon." But he characterized Krewson's proposal as just a starting point. "The nature and scope of the restriction will be the subjects of the discussion," he said.

Slay said it's especially important to listen to moderates rather than letting "the zealots on both sides of the issue" define the debate. Like Krewson, Slay said he's concerned that businesses are not put at a disadvantage through a bill applying only to the city.

Legislators can expect heavy pressure from area casinos. Kansas City's ban, the result of an April 2008 referendum, is a relatively strong anti-smoking law but with an exemption for casinos and tobacco stores.

In 2005 and 2006 when then-County Councilman Kurt Odenwald, a Republican from Shrewsbury, pushed the issue in St. Louis County, the bill came up for a vote only after concessions to the gaming industry were made. Odenwald grudgingly amended the bill so that only half of casino floors had to be smoke-free; no such concession was offered to small businesses. Because of this exemption, health advocates who had previously supported the bill turned against Odenwald, saying the bill was too weak to be effective. The bill eventually died after losing a vote 4-3.

St. Louis County revisits the issue

In 2006, Odenwald lost his seat on the County Council to Barbara Fraser, a Democrat. Fraser has continued Odenwald's advocacy of smoking restrictions.

The biggest hurdle for any anti-smoking measure is coordination with other counties, she said. St. Louis County has to think not just about St. Louis but also St. Charles County, the county's neighbor to the west, she said.

No specific language for a bill has been developed yet, but it would closely reflect that of St. Louis, she said.

Asked if she worried about how small businesses might be affected, she said that businesses may have more to gain than lose with a smoking ban. Anecdoctally, Fraser said, she knows of families who have given up on dining out in certain restaurants, despite the presence of nominally smoke-free sections.

Another potential stumbling block is the county executive, who can veto any bill and exerts influence over the fellow members of his party on the seven-person County Council. Currently, the council has a 4-3 Democratic majority, and County Executive Charlie Dooley is a Democrat.

Mac Scott, an aide to Dooley, said the county executive believes that any smoking ban should be enacted on the statewide level. Dooley has held that position since 2005, when the issue first became a serious one in the county.

In 2005, however, Dooley was a smoker, a fact that some said explained his ambivalence toward a ban. Dooley quit smoking in 2006, about the time the smoking ban came up for the second time, Scott said.

Dooley does not oppose a ban, but if he were to go to Jefferson City to speak on behalf of St. Louis County residents, numerous other issues would take priority, Scott said.

In the past, attempts to ban smoking at the state level -- Dooley's preferred solution -- have been given short shrift. In February 2008, state Sen. Joan Bray proposed a statewide smoking ban, but no co-sponsors signed on, and the bill did not receive a committee hearing.

Tim Woodcock is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

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