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O'Mara gets an earful about eliminating St. Louis County's smoking-ban exemptions

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 6, 2013 - St. Louis County bar owners – and representatives of at least one county casino – urged a county councilman not to remove exemptions to a voter-approved smoking ban.

After a public hearing on Wednesday, Councilman Mike O’Mara – the Florissant Democrat spearheading an effort to alter the ordinance’s exemptions – told reporters he doesn’t plan to move forward with his proposal for now.

In 2009 St. Louis County voters approved a smoking ban in that included exemptions. That meant that people could smoke in casinos, as well as bars in which 25 percent or less of their sales are food.

O’Mara introduced a bill earlier this year to get rid of such exceptions. He said at the time that his bill was aimed at "creating a fair playing field for these bars and restaurants across St. Louis County."

He promised that the measure would receive a public hearing at the council’s Committee of the Whole before proceeding.

The vast majority of the speakers at Wednesday's hearing urged O’Mara to change his bill or abandon it altogether. Many of the speakers argued that removing exemptions would either place their establishments at a competitive disadvantage or drive them out of business.

Several representatives from the Maryland Heights-based Hollywood Casino made such contentions, noting that removing exemptions for casinos would likely prompt smokers to go across the river to the St. Charles-based Ameristar Casino.

“Such a ban would have a significant, detrimental effect on revenues produced for the state and for Maryland Heights,” said Craig Robinson, vice president of finance for Hollywood Casino. “Evidence from other states – mainly Illinois – shows a dramatic impact when smoking bans are implemented and smoking still exists among your competitors.”

Robinson said studies showed that revenue dropped 20 to 30 percent if a casino bordered a jurisdictions without a smoking ban. He said his casino would face a “significant” challenge from Ameristar, which is located in St. Charles County, which doesn’t have a smoking ban.

Don Hart, who helps run the Maryland Heights-based Maryland Yards bar, made a similar contention. If the council removes exemptions, Hart said, then “a lot of my customers are going to go to St. Charles.” 

“These smokers will move,” Hart said.

Perhaps the most impassioned testimony came from Lisa Keller, the owner of Town & Country-based Morgan Le Fay’s Tapas Bar and Lounge. She told O’Mara that if the exemptions were removed, her establishment would likely go out of business.

“I have invested over $500,000 into a little pub for my piece of the American pie,” she added. “And if I knew that five years ago you would have imposed your wishes on my guests, I wouldn’t have opened a bar.”

“This council in its banning is ludicrous,” she added. “Instead of two years ago – when the economic conditions for all business owners were being devastated by a horrendous economy – instead of thinking through the problem, we just reacted.”

Still, other bar owners took a different view.

Derek Deaver, the owner of Deaver’s Restaurant & Sports Bar in north St. Louis County, echoed O’Mara in noting that the current system of exemptions has created an uneven playing field.

“The exemptions were set up for the casinos to get out of it and then to make sure these small bars didn’t get hurt,” Deaver said. “Well, a lot of these small bars through this process have gotten hurt. A lot of the other small bars have prospered because of this.

“All I’m asking is to make it a level playing field,” he added. “Either you can smoke everywhere or you can’t smoke everywhere. It’s up to the county to make it a level playing field.”

Marty Ginsburg, the owner of the Sports Page in Chesterfield who supports removing the exemptions, said one way to tweak O’Mara’s proposal would be to lower the percentage of food allowed in exempted establishments.

Next steps

In an interview with reporters afterward, O’Mara said he would take a number of changes into consideration.

St. Louis County Councilman Mike O'Mara talks to reporters about what's next for his bill to remove exemptions to the county's smoking ban.

Some possible changes, he said, would be basing an exemption on square footage, whether the establishment allows guests 21 years or younger or whether they don’t serve food.

"We just need to come to a logical conclusion on this," O'Mara said. "[It's about] how we keep people in business, how we keep our exemptions on a fair playing field for our bar and restaurant owners. So still a lot to consider from here on out.

“In no shape or form are we trying to hurt the little person out there trying to make a living,” he added.

While the county council could technically take up O'Mara's bill next week, he said that he doesn’t expect any action on the measure until the spring.

“We still got a little bit of homework to do,” O’Mara said. “We’ll put our heads and thoughts together. And we’ll maybe talk with the other council members to see if they have any thoughts or suggestions. But I’m still open-minded that we can make something work that’s fair to everybody. I think it’d be a win-win.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.