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Commentary: Smoking: Ban it everywhere indoors

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 23, 2009 - Clayton is close to having a ban that would take effect in July 2010. Ballwin is already smoke free. What about the rest of the area? Health considerations should count there, too.

Three weeks ago, the Clayton City Council voted 5 to 1 in an initial vote to have all indoor businesses become smoke-free. Only one alderman voted against the measure, and he wanted to see a stronger ordinance that added Clayton's parks and green spaces to the bars and restaurants in the bill. The City Council will have a second and final vote in July, and the ordinance will, if passed, go into effect in July 2010. Clayton residents overwhelmingly supported the ordinance, and many came out to hear the verdict.

Clayton is not the first municipality in St. Louis County to go smoke-free; Ballwin has held that distinction since 2006. Clayton and Ballwin are leading by example.

While many other communities in our region are contemplating the pros and cons of smoke-free workplaces, Clayton and Ballwin have made real progress. It is much easier to tackle this issue at the municipal level, as Big Tobacco's influence is strongest at the state level, though I don't know how long that will hold, seeing as the No. 1 tobacco producing state, North Carolina, passed a statewide smoke-free law in May. That's right: The birthplace of RJ Reynolds and the home of Winston-Salem will soon be 100 percent smoke-free.

Right now, only about 13 percent of Missourians are covered by smoke-free protections. St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles are all crucial to this movement if we're going to see a smoke-free state. In the city, Mayor Francis Slay recently said on his blog "I am not willing to wait forever for everyone to reach the same reasonable conclusion."

July 2010 is as good a target as any for our region to be smoke-free. In addition to Clayton, Washington University will go 100 percent smoke-free in July 2010. St. Louis Alderwoman Lyda Krewson, D-28th ward, recently introduced a smoke-free bill to the Board of Aldermen. The bill would make city bars, restaurants and indoor spaces smoke-free as soon as St. Louis County passes a similar ordinance.

According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, in Missouri there are 140,000 kids alive today and under the age of 18 who will die prematurely from smoking. This year, 1,180 adults in Missouri will die from secondhand smoke exposure.

It would be one thing if St. Louis were the first city to address this issue, but we're not. We have the luxury of ample data from thousands of communities. Every economic impact study not funded by tobacco industry allies finds no adverse impact on bar and restaurant business. The argument that markets should decide is a hollow one; we have a duty to protect our city's workforce.

A nurse in a hospital is protected by laws and regulations so her health isn't affected by her job; does that make her any more worthy of protection than a waitress in a smoky bar? The nurse and the waitress are both someone's daughter or mother, and neither of them should have to choose between their health and a paycheck.

The issue is not about personal preference or even about smoking -- it's about smoking indoors where other people are forced (that's right, forced) to breathe in carcinogens. No one has a choice to breathe. We're simply asking smokers to step outside for the health of everyone. It's a reasonable request.

Of the 30 largest cities in the United States, St. Louis and Detroit are the only two left without smoke-free protections. I think Mayor Slay said it best in his state of the city address: "Nothing quite says 'regressive place to live' to young people like resisting a change already made in 29 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico."

We look forward to the day when our entire region is smoke-free. Now is the time to start making positive changes in our communities. Wildwood, Kirkwood, Creve Coeur and others are in the process of making the switch. Eliminating smoking indoors is an effective, cost-free way to improve our community's health in a tangible and measurable way. What are we waiting for?

Diana L. Benanti is coalition director of Smoke-Free St. Louis City