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Opponents of smoking ban turn out for Clayton city council meeting

This article first, appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 13, 2009 - Two weeks after Clayton's public hearing for residents to comment on a proposed smoking ban, people who work in the city had a chance to weigh in.

Of the 27 speakers who addressed city officials, 10 favored a comprehensive ban in public places, 16 spoke against the ban and one person didn't give an opinion. That's a notable -- but hardly surprising -- flip from the April 28 tally. At that hearing, 18 residents spoke and all but three favored the ban.

On Tuesday night, it didn't take long for a pattern to emerge. Owners and employees of Clayton restaurants and bars, a group that accounted for about half of all speakers, overwhelmingly came out against the ban. Owners and employees of other types of businesses, as well as speakers who represented other institutions, largely supported the proposed smoking restrictions.

Some restaurants brought several people to hammer home the point that the ban would put Clayton businesses at a competitive disadvantage. They argued that unless other cities or the entire region enacts a similar ban, patrons who smoke would simply leave Clayton for establishments elsewhere. Several restaurateurs -- and a bartender from the restaurant Barcelona -- said they had anecdotal evidence that their customers would come less often if they couldn't smoke. That would lead to a loss of sales tax for the city, and the drop in business at a time when the economy is already sour could lead some places to shut their doors for good, the owners argued.

"We don't want this to have a detrimental effect on our businesses, said Frank Schmitz, owner of Barcelona and head of the Restaurateurs Alliance of Clayton, of group of business owners that formed to oppose the ban. "We need to give other communities a chance to consider a similar ban in the near future."

Many of the restaurant owners reiterated that they'd support some type of smoking ban so long as Clayton doesn't have to go it alone. Schmitz said the alliance would even consider changes to the city's ordinance that would ban smoking up until a certain hour in the evening. The owner of C.J. Muggs estimated that about 75 percent of people who are inside his bar and grill between the hours of 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. smoke. A smoking ban during the most profitable time of the night would effectively kill the late-night business, he said.

Other restaurateurs made the point that it should be up to them to decide whether to go smoke-free. Clayton has roughly 80 restaurants, about 60 of which do not allow smoking, according to the Missouri Restaurant Association.

On Friday, the AFL-CIO went on the record opposing a smoking ban in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Still, several speakers said they weren't buying the argument that Clayton businesses would be hurt by the ban. Sharon Hall, owner of Brooke Hair Design, said it could actually help their business. With the Highway 40 closure, residents might be motivated to stay closer to home, particularly if their favorite establishments go smoke-free, she said.

More than 7 in 10 Clayton residents who responded to a city survey said that they support the ban. (Several restaurateurs made the point that their customer base goes well beyond Clayton.)

"The Clayton residents who support this ban will support these businesses," Hall said. "I never go to places that allow smoking, and I for one will patronize them if they go smoke-free."

Hall said she's also concerned for the health of the waitresses, bartenders and bus staff who work in smoking establishments.

Mayor Linda Goldstein said a revised smoking ordinance will likely come up for a vote either May 26 or June 9.

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