Few voters may decide fate of St. Louis County smoking ban

A quarter of St. Louis County’s voters — maybe 175,000 — could be deciding on Tuesday whether the city and county, with a combined population of 1.35 million, go smoke-free.

The city last week made its smoking ban contingent on the county enacting a ban. And with turnout Tuesday expected to be 25 percent of the county’s 705,000 registered voters, a lot will be riding on a relatively few voters.

Kansas City, Springfield, Columbia and some smaller suburbs, including Ballwin, Clayton and Arnold here, already have bans, but Tuesday’s vote will affect more Missourians than all of the other bans combined.

Proposition N would prohibit smoking countywide, with a significant exception for casinos, and take effect on Jan. 2, 2011. Kirkwood is also voting Tuesday on a similar ban, called Proposition I. It would take effect Jan. 2.

Joe Donahue, Democratic director of elections for the county, put the turnout estimate at 25 percent, but acknowledged he was being optimistic.

“I like to be optimistic,” he said.

County Councilwoman Barbara Fraser, D-University City, was the sponsor of the council ordinance that produced Prop N.

She said it “would protect the health of my fellow county citizens.”

“Studies show that smoking bans save a half-million lives a year nationally — half the population of St. Louis County,” she said Monday at a forum of the Clayton Chamber of Commerce. “There is no safe level of secondhand smoke.”

Bill Hannegan, a prominent opponent of smoking bans, countered at the forum that the county proposal was “social engineering applied to all residents.”

St. Louis and St. Louis County officials supporting bans “are on a power trip,” he said. “What’s next — obesity, sugar, sodas?”

BUSINESSES WORRIED

Prop N is of particular concern for owners of restaurants, bars and bowling alleys at the edges of St. Louis County — areas a short drive from Franklin, Jefferson and St. Charles counties. In those counties, only one community, Arnold in Jefferson County, has a ban.

Proprietors of the county’s 21 bowling centers, which employ about 600 employees, say they are worried.

Gary Voss is owner of the West County Lanes bowling alley on Manchester Road near Clarkson Road in Ellisville. A ban would cause at least a short-term loss of business, which he said “would be deadly in our case.”

In 2006, Ballwin enacted its ban, and the Bones French Quarter Bar and Grill, 14766 Manchester Road, slumped for six months, a co-owner said.

Brian Armstrong, whose family has owned the restaurant for 49 years, said it lost much of its lunch crowd, diners who wanted to relax with a smoke and a beer.

The restaurant strongly opposed the Ballwin ban, but it now has adapted. Its decor has been changed and new staff was hired to appeal to younger customers who would come for dinner, Armstrong said.

The restaurant expanded its patio, where customers could smoke, and added heaters there.

“This year business is up,” Armstrong said.

Marty Ginsburg, owner the Sports Page Bar & Grill in Chesterfield, said property and business owners should determine smoking policy in their establishments.

“I’m the one assuming all the risk, paying the taxes and insurance,” he said.

PROP N CALLED WEAK

The local chapters of the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society and American Lung Association — ardent opponents of smoking — have stayed neutral on the county ban.

They consider it too weak.

Stacy Henry Reliford, regional government relations director of the cancer society here, said the county proposal “does not deliver smoke-free protections to those who need it most” — workers in bars and casinos.

“Regardless of the outcome on November 3rd, our focus is on delivering health protection from secondhand smoke,” Reliford said.

Martin Pion, president of Missouri GASP, which has opposed smoking for 25 years, said the organization supports Prop N.

The measure has loopholes, he acknowledged. “Still, this ordinance is worthwhile. Every restaurant (with or without a bar) will be smoke-free,” he said.

The exemption for casino gaming floors sticks in the craw of both supporters and opponents of the ban.

Hannegan predicted the smoking ban would face “costly, extended and embarrassing legal challenges” because of that exemption. And the Greater St. Louis Bowling Proprietors Association said, “Just because big casinos have more political clout than bowling centers, they shouldn’t get a pass.”

Several observers have noted that ban supporters did not want to draw the casinos into the election because they could spend millions of dollars on a campaign and defeat the proposal.

Fraser has not specified a reason for the casino exemption. The smoking ban “is a result of compromise,” she said.

“It is not a perfect bill,” she said. “Fair compromises made the bill possible.”

DEBATE OVER STRATEGY

Some anti-smoking groups want a statewide ban, while other advocates say the best strategy is to start local.

The latter groups believe that state legislation could end up being changed to something that would weaken future local enforcement.

Any action toward getting Missouri to join the 31 states, including Illinois, that have bans is not likely soon. House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said no member has expressed interest in drafting a ban for the next session.

State Rep. Joe Fallert, D-Ste. Genevieve, who sought a state constitutional amendment for a smoking ban last session, said Tuesday: “Based on what happened last year, I don’t think it would go anywhere.” State Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford, D-St. Louis, a smoke-free advocate, acknowledged: “The state is not ready for a smoking ban.”

Tobacco companies and related industries heavily lobby lawmakers, she said.

source: www.stltoday.com

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