Smoking still allowed in Missouri’s legislative offices

Smoke-free is becoming the norm in workplaces across Missouri. But in state government, you can still light up in one office building: the Capitol.

The House and Senate allow smoking in representatives’ and senators’ office suites on all four floors of the Capitol, as well as in a members-only gallery at the rear of the third-floor House chamber.

Now, that policy is coming under attack from health-conscious legislators in both political parties. They say they’re standing up for children in tour groups and people with asthma and other respiratory problems who can’t breathe in smoky spaces.

“This is the only building owned by the state where you can smoke,” said freshman Rep. Rory Ellinger, D-University City. “You can’t even smoke in prison.”

Those pushing to bar smoking have wrung one concession from Republican House leaders, who agreed to ban it in the rear gallery, where legislators often grab meals between votes.

But the House Rules Committee has so far rejected pitches to go further. With the Legislature sometimes working 14-hour days, opponents of a smoking ban say it would impose a hardship on legislators and staffers who smoke.

“I don’t think there was a consensus … to take away people’s individual prerogative to do something in the privacy of their offices,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. John Diehl, R-Town and Country.

Some Democrats will try to reverse that decision when the House debates the rules, possibly as early as today.

Across the Rotunda, the Senate has already banned smoking in its rear gallery, as well as common areas such as committee rooms, hallways, restrooms and elevators.

But senators, too, can smoke in their offices. No members have proposed to change that.

Areas of the Capitol controlled by the executive branch — parts of the first and second floors — do bar smoking.

The issue is coming up in the House, in part, because legislators in the minority party (Democrats) are crammed into small cubicles, which are double-decked on the Capitol’s high-ceilinged first floor.

With no seniority, Ellinger, for example, ended up in what’s known as the ‘smoking complex,” where at least two of the 10 legislators smoke. So do some staffers. The offices share a ventilation system.

“Someone can confine their smoking to their cubicle but the smoke goes everywhere,” said Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford, D-St. Louis.

Smokers say the problem is overstated.

Rep. Tim Meadows, D-Imperial, said that when he smokes, he closes his office door, opens the window and turns on a fan.

“We blow it outside,” he said.

Meadows said he is trying to quit and hasn’t had a cigarette in eight days. But even if he quits for good, he supports letting lawmakers smoke in their offices.

“When we are here late at night, this is our home,” Meadows said. “As long as I’m blowing it out the window and it’s not bothering anybody, what difference does it make?”

Rep. David Sater, R-Cassville, who persuaded the House Republican Caucus to prohibit smoking in the rear gallery, said that with the House’s odd hours, a broader ban would impose “a hardship” on smokers.

Some remember when the problem was much worse.

As late as the 1990s, smoking was allowed throughout the Capitol, including in the ornate House and Senate chambers and in packed committee rooms.

“Fifteen years ago, the majority (of legislators) were smokers,” said Sen. Tim Green, D-Spanish Lake. “Today, the majority are nonsmokers.”

Also, growing concern about the danger of secondhand smoke has galvanized support for measures banning smoking in public places. Jefferson City voters passed such a measure in November, though it doesn’t govern goings-on in the Capitol.

But the culture is changing.

Back in 1995, the Senate made light of the issue, passing a “courtesy resolution” declaring the area surrounding longtime tobacco and beer lobbyist John Britton “an official Missouri State Senate designated smoking area.”

While the resolution had no force of law, Britton used to puff away in a third-floor hallway corner.

He’s more careful these days.

On Wednesday, Britton was spotted walking down the hall with an unlit cigarette in his hand, heading for a friendly Senate office.

“I just try to be discreet with my smoking,” he said.


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