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Vote on Prop N, the countywide smoking ban on Nov. 3 ballot, will shape smoking policy in region

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 29, 2009 - It's a good time to be a St. Louis County resident who routinely votes. If you like attention and influence, that is.

Both sides in the battle over Proposition N, the county's smoking ban measure, are focusing their last-minute efforts on people who go to the polls -- not just in high-profile election years but also in so-called off years like 2009. With low turnout expected, reaching these voters is crucial for the campaigns.

Then there are the interested observers from St. Louis who will be closely monitoring the election results. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen voted 20-7 last week to approve a smoking ban that is contingent on the county enacting its ban. That means county voters will have the definitive say on the smoking ban issue for much of the region -- at least for now.

In St. Louis County, Ballwin and most recently Clayton have passed indoor smoking bans. (Clayton's ban doesn't kick in until July 2010.) Kirkwood voters will weigh in on Tuesday with Proposition 1. But most eyes will be on the county measure, added to the November ballot after the St. Louis County Council voted 4-3 in late August to bring the proposed smoking ban to voters.

Proposition N would prevent lighting up in most in most indoor public places, with the biggest exceptions being casino gaming floors, airport lounges and "drinking establishments" where food makes up less than 25 percent of gross sales. (St. Louis County Councilwoman Barbara Fraser, D-University City, who sponsored the bill, said it's difficult to know exactly how many bars would be exempt, but she puts the estimate anywhere from 60 to 80.) The ban would take effect January 2011.

The city's ban also covers most restaurants and bars, exempts casinos and and would go into effect more than a year from now. Small bars -- establishments that are under 2,000 square feet and serve an incidental amount of food -- would be allowed to wait five years before having to comply. That provision is a nod to pub owners concerned about the potential of losing business in a down economy.

Weighing In -- and Staying Neutral

Opponents of the smoking ban say that if Proposition N passes, many businesses will take a financial hit. Tom Sullivan, a consultant to the group Citizens Against Proposition N, a coalition that includes owners of bowling alleys, bars and other merchants, said he's particularly concerned about businesses in North County and other parts of the region that border counties without a smoking ban.

"It's a very bad idea to have a smoking ban when the surrounding counties don't have one," he said. "If this goes into effect, you'll see people heading for St. Charles and Jefferson counties."

Gary Voss, executive director of the Bowling Proprietors Association of St. Louis, which represents 21 bowling centers in St. Louis County, said the ban would put his members at an economic disadvantage.

"These centers are all basically mom-and-pop businesses, and a smoking ban could be devastating. It would put them at an unfair disadvantage," Voss said. "We've worked hard to build our clientele. About 30 percent of our league bowlers are smokers, and some of them will go to other centers."

Voss said bowlers already face plenty of restrictions on when and where they can smoke. Some leagues are for non-smokers only, and at many centers, smoking is allowed only in the lounge, Voss noted.

He also questions the exemptions. "The bill puts the non-smoking tag on us and gives a free ride to casinos? All of a sudden the big guys come up and get all the concessions. Is that really fair?"

Fraser said during a debate Monday hosted by the Clayton Chamber of Commerce that the trigger of a similar smoking ban in St. Louis blunts the argument that the ban would put county businesses at a disadvantage.

Jane Suozzi, co-chair of the pro-ban group County Citizens for Cleaner Air and a Ballwin alderwoman, said businesses that now allow smoking would be more inviting to non-smokers in the wake of a ban, which could lead to an increase in business.

Bill Hannegan of the anti-ban group Keep St. Louis Free said during that debate Monday that Prop N would violate the property rights of businesses owners, and that patrons can decide for themselves whether they want to frequent a smoking or non-smoking establishment.

Hannegan also said the county's proposed ban is unfair because it privileges casinos over small businesses. He said even though St. Louis would follow suit with its smoking ban, "there still wouldn't be a level playing field" because the measure still pits bars against restaurants and other establishments.

Fraser had originally proposed a smoking ban with no exemptions but didn't have the council support for that. "This is a first step," she said. "Most if not all of the people who wanted something stronger can really understand that this is a great beginning, especially because the city will go along as well." She added, too, that the ban would go a long way toward keeping more people away from second-hand smoke.

Suozzi said that while she and other supporters of Prop N consider the measure to be far from ideal, it's better to get a proposal before voters than to wait for awhile for what they consider a stronger bill.

"It's not doing exactly what we wanted it to do," Suozzi said. "We're irritated about the casino provision, but it wasn't going to pass without some sort of exemption, and to be honest, did we really want casino bans and then have to fight that campaign?"

Pat Lindsey, executive director of Tobacco-Free Missouri Greater St. Louis Coalition and director of the Tobacco Prevention Center at Saint Louis University's School of Public Health, said she supports the ban, even with the exemptions that she doesn't favor.

"It's probably better to try and protect the masses than to throw the whole thing out now and wait a few more years until we have a more perfect bill," Lindsey said. "If this referendum fails, it could very well be a long time before we see another one."

Tom Thornton, a Ballwin resident and realtor for RE/MAX, said he had originally planned to vote against the measure because he didn't agree with the exemptions for casinos. "I'm not a big fan of special interests getting special treatment," he said. But after talking to his brother, who owns a Clayton restaurant, he said he became convinced that a regional ban is inevitable.

Thornton said he now plans to vote for the ban.

Then there are those who have mostly remained on the sidelines. At the time he signed the bill, County Executive Charlie Dooley said: "I would prefer a statewide ban, but at the same time I recognize that St. Louis County voters, on a very important health issue, want to be heard on this."

Tobacco-Free Missouri, along with the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and the American Lung Association, had urged Dooley to veto the bill. They were concerned that "a weak ordinance ends up compromising the health of workers, offers false reassurance to the public, and stands in the way of future efforts."

Since then, the groups have remained neutral. "We want voters to educate themselves and make a decision," said Stacy Reliford, regional government relations director at the American Cancer Society.

Martin Pion, president of Missouri GASP, said the group initially decided to take a neutral stance -- in part because of the exemptions. But he said after polling his membership, it became apparent that the measure had support.

"It's not as strong a bill as we would like, and we are leaving some people out in the cold," Pion said. "But overall there's good coverage, even by our standards. The bill would be a major step forward and provide momentum for the county to revisit it in the near future."

Down to the Wire

What about costs of this effort? As the Beacon reported this week, relatively little money has been spent on either side. The pro-Proposition N group, County Citizens for Cleaner Air, as of earlier this week reported raising only $12,336, spending $2,502.59, with $9,833.50 on hand. The opposition, Citizens Against Proposition N, reported raising $5,000, spending $11,867, with $104.85 on hand, and a debt of $11,972.

Both sides say they plan to push their campaigning in the final days. County Citizens for Cleaner Air held a fundraiser at Pi in Kirkwood where some of the restaurant's proceeds helped support its cause. The group is planning to call county residents who are frequent voters.

"Frankly we've have so little time, we've been going as hard as we can," Suozzi said.

More than 200 people -- the majority of them Saint Louis University Medical School students -- took part in an indoor rally Thursday afternoon at the medical school campus, according to Jill Zaveri, a SLU medical school student and co-organizer of the event. Staff and faculty members also attended the rally. Tony Scalzo, a professor of pediatrics, performed a rap song about Prop N ("Keep it clean and understand what's bad in that second-hand; STL, MO and the city gov. can learn the way if we cast our vote; so tell 'em all on 11-3, the Prop N smoke ban you will promote.")

Students from Saint Louis University Students For a Smoke-Free St. Louis, the group that planned the rally, also plan to stand at major intersections with signs on Monday to show support for the Prop N.

"As medical students, it's important to understand the population we're working with," Zaveri said. "We want to bring awareness to students and protect people sooner rather than later."

Sullivan, the Citizens Against Prop N consultant, said the group is sending out literature to more than 200,000 targeted voters, including those who commonly vote in elections. The group is also running print advertisements and 30-second radio ads targeted to listeners who aren't supportive of the casino exemption. The ads are slated to play on Christian radio and other stations, Sullivan said.

Supports and opponents of the county ban say they are confident about their chances. Fraser said she is "cautiously optimistic," and Pion added: "We're not counting our chickens, but there's a feeling of optimism that this is going to pass."

Said Sullivan: "I like our chances. But it's always a dicey situation" for campaigns against smoking bans, he said. "In an election like this, it's hard to say what's going to happen."

Puneet Kollipara, a former intern at the Beacon, contributed to this report.