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County Council approves smoking-ban change sought by Harrah's

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 15, 2010 - By a narrow 4-3 vote, the St. Louis County Council gave first-round approval Tuesday night to a change in the countywide smoking ban set to go into effect Jan. 1.

The change allows Harrah's casino in Maryland Heights to allow smoking in its lounges, including the VooDoo Lounge. Supporters say the aim is to correct an oversight in the original ban approved by voters in November 2009. Opponents say the change waters down the ban and defies voters.

The opposition was led by Council President Barbara Fraser, D-University City, who angrily declared, "By creating another exemption for casinos, this bill goes in the wrong direction for the health of county residents."

The provision's sponsor, Councilwoman Kathleen Kelly Burkett, D-Overland, said the issue was simply that the smoking ban allows businesses with county liquor licenses to seek exceptions to the ban under certain circumstances, but the ban makes no provisions for bars in casinos, which get their licenses from the state Gaming Comission. Burkett viewed the matter as a simple oversight being corrected.

But critics said that casinos already have special status in the ban since smoking on the casino floors is already allowed.

Fraser was joined by both GOP members of the council -- Colleen Wasinger of Town and Country and Greg Quinn of Ballwin -- who said they didn't want to vote counter to the public's wishes. All three cited the fact that almost two-thirds of county voters had backed Prop N.

Burkett was joined by the board's other three Democrats, who made no comments aside from their supportive votes.

Charles Gatton, who had headed the chief pro-Prop N group, County Citizens for Cleaner Air, said afterward he was concerned that the Harrah's exception would set a precedent and weaken the county's overall restrictions on public smoking. He said several area communities already have stricter anti-smoking laws than the county.

Gatton said he planned to ask St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley to veto the Harrah's exception. Dooley said he will review the matter after the measure is finally passed, but Burkett indicated she expected him to sign the change.

Because of procedural requirements, the final vote cannot be taken until Jan. 4. That happens to be after Fraser, who did not seek-relection, will leave the board.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.