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Smoking bans are on ballot in four Missouri cities, including O'Fallon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 30, 2011 - The latest chapter of the smoking ban saga is about to unfold as voters in O'Fallon, Mo., and in three other cities on Tuesday consider strict bans on smoking in public places.

And like in most recent smoking-ban showdowns in the area, the debate in this large exurb of St. Louis has boiled down to public health versus the individual's right to choose.

Bar patron Tom Cardillo is one of those who said the smoking ban would amount to an infringement on individual choice.

"I do believe that if you're not a smoker and you don't want to smell that, I don't blame you," said Cardillo, 35, St. Charles, as he smoked a cigarette and enjoyed a drink at a local bar here. "But some people like to smoke, and that's our prerogative."

Smoke-Free O'Fallon and public-health groups supporting the ban want to make this city the latest one to protect employees and customers from secondhand smoke's health effects. The proposed ordinance is comprehensive: It would make smoking illegal in all public workplaces, including bars, bowling alleys and private clubs with employees.

Similar ordinances will go to voters the same day in the Missouri towns of Webb City, Springfield and Cape Girardeau as advocates look to expand a steadily growing map of smoke-free cities.

"This is a public health issue," Craig Boring, member of Smoke-Free O'Fallon and a regional vice president for the American Cancer Society, said. "This is providing in public places a smoke-free environment for employees and patrons."

Perhaps the most vocal opponent of the smoking ban is O'Fallon Councilman Jim Pepper of the city's 2nd Ward. He said that his opposition isn't about the rightness or wrongness of smoking or its health effects -- though he does dispute health advocates' contention that secondhand smoke can be dangerous even in low doses. Rather, he said, the proposed smoking ban would amount to an assault on businesses' and individuals' right to choose and would hurt numerous mom-and-pop establishments.

"Where do you have the right to tell me where I can and cannot go and what I can and cannot do, if it's a legal enterprise?" Pepper said. "Where do we have the right to tell a business that they cannot have this?"

O'Fallon has been a suburban boom town. The most recent census figures show the population is 79,329. In 2000, it was 46,169.

But the economic downturn has since dented the boom, and Pepper warned that passing a smoking ban now would simply worsen the situation and cost the city jobs. Residents would simply go to other cities that don't forbid smoking in bars, he added.

Cardillo echoed Pepper's reasoning: "I'm probably going to go to fewer and fewer places, and I'm going to end up in the place that allows you to smoke." That means going "wherever it takes," he said.

Smoke-free policy advocates have felt the wind at their backs as smoking bans have taken effect in St. Louis, St. Louis County, Jefferson City and Fulton. Lake St. Louis, near O'Fallon in St. Charles County, also approved a ban recently.

Advocates said the public has spoken in favor of protecting health, and they say studies refute the idea that smoking bans harm businesses. "The concerns that have been raised, very rarely do they come to fruition," Boring said. Pepper has argued that other studies show a negative economic effect, however.

"More people don't smoke than smoke," Boring added. "So just the very opposite could happen with this. More people could come out because they would have more opportunities to go to places that are smoke-free."

And advocates say voters in O'Fallon and the three other cities would send a strong message to the state if they approve their proposed ordinances. Nancy Mueller, board chairwoman for Tobacco-Free Missouri statewide coalition, said Cape Girardeau is one of the cities most affected by tobacco use in the state, while Springfield carries a lot of political clout as the state's third-largest city.

"All of these [proposed smoke-free policies] are really important, first of all to protect the people that live in the communities, to provide them with a smoke-free environment where they live, work and play," Mueller said. "But it also helps continue that momentum for us to be successful for a comprehensive statewide law in the next few years."

State Rep. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, is the lead sponsor of a statewide smoke-free bill. Though the bill's supporters don't feel bullish about its chances, they hope it makes some progress.

Supporters of the O'Fallon measure got it on the April ballot last fall. They had collected thousands of petition signatures, but the O'Fallon City Council took no action on the proposal, leaving it to voters by default.

Pepper accused the measure's supporters of trying to ram it through without trying to compromise with the council. Boring denied that accusation, saying the supporters went "by the letter of the law" and by the proper procedures to get the measure on the ballot. He also said other City Council members haven't really spoken as vocally about the measure as Pepper has.

Smoke-free advocates also say an ordinance with exemptions would undermine its purpose, which is to protect the health of all employees and patrons.

To Pepper, smoke-free advocates are just trying to impose government on the people. "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Pepper said. "They're trying to take away two of those."

Puneet Kollipara, a freelance writer in St. Louis, is a student at Washington University and a former intern at the Beacon.

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