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The fight to ban indoor smoking moves to the ballot

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 27, 2009 - As the patchwork effort to ban smoking in most indoor public places continues across the region, the battle could be moving to the ballot box. And while some supporters of the smoke-free campaign say that taking the issue to voters is the next logical step, others who favor the smoking restrictions, as well as many who don't, argue that these votes are unnecessary.

The latest development came Tuesday, as the St. Louis County Council voted 4-3 in favor of giving county residents a chance to decide whether they want to ban smoking in indoor public places, with the biggest exceptions being "drinking establishments" where alcohol makes up at least 75 percent of sales, casino floors and designated airport lounges. County Executive Charlie Dooley signed the bill Friday.

"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," Dooley said at a press conference. He added that "I believe the perfect solution to this would be no exemptions," but said that "the bill is the best [the council] can do ... It's not perfect but it is what it is." Dooley didn't indicate whether he would campaign for the bill.

Tobacco Free Missouri, along with the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and the American Lung Association, in a joint statement urged Dooley to veto the bill. The groups released another statement Friday saying that they "are extremely disappointed that the St. Louis County Executive Director Dooley has decided to send the voters a flawed and weak proposal...While many view this as a good step in the right direction, from our experiences, a weak ordinance ends up compromising the health of workers, offers false reassurance to the public, and stands in the way of future efforts."

Stacy Reliford, regional government relations director at the American Cancer Society, said Friday morning that it's too early to know whether the groups behind the statement would work together to fight the ballot measure.

It became clear over the past several weeks, as the council debated different versions of the proposed smoking ban, that there wasn't enough support for a bill with no exemptions. Councilwoman Barbara Fraser, D-University City, who sponsored an original bill without the bar and casino exemptions, as well as the one that passed Tuesday, said that while she considers the bill going before voters imperfect, "we now have to rely on voters in St. Louis County to vote for clean air." 

Other council members echoed Fraser's sentiments almost verbatim. "My motive is to give voters the opportunity to decide if they want clean air in the county," said Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country.

Added Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin: "It's good to let voters decide this; there's an argument to be made on both sides."

On the other side is Councilwoman Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland, who said during the meeting -- echoing Dooley's oft-stated position -- that she prefers the issue to be handled on the state level. "I hope voters understand that it's not a 100 percent smoking ban," she said.

Several people at the meeting weighed in on the council's decision to bring the issue to voters. Martin Pion, president of Missouri Group Against Smoking Pollution, said that he's conflicted: He supports the smoke-free effort but not the exemptions that he said send a mixed message about second-hand smoke.  

Pion also told the council that it is ducking its responsibility. "Instead of the council enacting this, we have a ballot measure that involves time and money and uncertain outcomes," he said.

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 agrees that the council is passing the buck. "We really wish the council would have acted on it; it's their responsibility," she said. "Now we have to go through this ordeal and drag it out, with both sides spending lots of money on their campaigns. And if it does go to the ballot, we could end up with nothing again."

Fraser noted that a county election that covers various issues was already scheduled for November. "This gives residents another reason to go to the polls," she said.

Walt Sumner, president of the St. Louis Academy of Family Physicians and an associate professor of medicine at Washington University, agreed with Pion and Lindsey on one point. "It's politically easier for the council members this way," he said. "It's a divisive issue, and the simplest thing for councils to do is to send it to voters."

Still, Sumner said he isn't against the idea of county residents having the final say. "If the issue is economically important and there's enough uncertainty, then it's good to have voters think it through."

Cities in the County Keep up the Fight

It's been well over a month since Clayton passed its smoking ban, which covers most indoor public places and goes into effect in July 2010. Ballwin already has its ban on the books. The fight has now moved to Wildwood and Kirkwood.

The Wildwood City Council is considering whether to move forward with its proposed smoking ban that covers bars and restaurants, including areas within 20 feet of outdoor seating or serving areas of the eateries. The measure allows hotels and motels to designate up to 20 percent of guest rooms as smoking rooms.

The council has set a public hearing date for September 24 to discuss the issue.

Residents of Kirkwood will have another chance to weigh in on the smoking issue. The Kirkwood City Council decided recently to put on the November ballot an anti-smoking initiative petition; it would cover bars and restaurants but includes the same hotel exemption, as well as retail tobacco stores and private clubs established before March 1.

Supporters of the ban collected more than 1,000 signatures to bring the measure to the council, which had earlier rejected an initiative calling for a smoking prohibition.

Kirkwood voters rejected a similar initiative in 2006. Debra Hacke Cotten, a spokeswoman for the group Healthy Air for Kirkwood, which sponsored the anti-smoking measure, said there are differences this time around.

For one, this version doesn't place restrictions on outdoor smoking, such as stipulating how far smokers must stand from the entryway of a public establishment. Cotten, who wasn't centrally involved in the campaign three years ago, said some voters were concerned about that provision in the last proposed ban. Bans on indoor smoking in bars and restaurants remain unchanged.

"We took a look at a lot of different legislation [regarding smoking bans] and got input from Kirkwood citizens," Cotten said. "Our primary concern is about indoor air."

But Joe Toenjes, co-founder of the group Choose Kirkwood, said voters already spoke three years ago. He questions the need for another round of voting.

"This is the second time we've had a vote forced upon us without any public dialogue or public input," Toenjes said. "It's rehashing the same proposal, and it's just flat abusing the citizen initiative process in Kirkwood. When does no mean no?"

Choose Kirkwood floated an alternative that would require operators of indoor public places to post signs indicating whether smoking is allowed. The group failed to collect enough signatures to meet a recent deadline but is still keeping the petition alive in the event that Kirkwood voters turn down the proposed ban in November. Toenjes said the group would then consider presenting the initiative to the council.

Cotten said she doesn't understand the objection to sending another smoking ban proposal to voters. "I can think of plenty of issues that didn't pass the first time around but after going back to the community and finding out what people want ended up being supported," she said. "There seems to be a growing appetite for this type of legislation right now."

Toenjes said he's concerned that these campaigns are being fueled by outside interest groups rather than residents of the communities. "Rather than taking the fight to state legislators, they are taking it city by city and then expect businesses and citizens to spend their time and energy to defeat the proposals."

Cotten refutes that claim. "Are there outside groups interested in what we're doing? Absolutely. It's a hot topic right now. Are there outsiders involved? No."

"Kirkwood really is a grassroots movement," said Lindsey of Tobacco-Free Missouri. "It's absolutely been the residents; they have been particular about keeping the coalitions away so they can do it for themselves."

Added Lindsey: "In a perfect world we'd like to see the county pass a good bill itself, but if they aren't go to do that, we'd rather see municipalities pass their own good bills."

Waiting in the City

Meanwhile, St. Louis aldermen will again take up a proposed citywide smoking ban in bars and restaurants after returning next month from recess. That ban would only take effect if St. Louis County passes its own prohibition.

Alderwoman Lyda Krewson, D-28th Ward, the bill's sponsor, said it's her hope that the measure will pass out of its health committee and be voted on by the full board without any substantive changes. As far as the possibility of sending the issue to a citizen vote?

"Each legislative body has to figure out what it can accomplish, but I don't think that's a preferable way to go here," she said. "I just think we ought to do the right thing and take clear action. Hopefully it's something the city and county can come together on."

Diana Benanti, coalition director of the group Smoke-Free St. Louis City, said she's counting on elected officials to act. "This is a decision that our leaders can make," she said. "Voters can make their voices heard by communicating with the people who they've put in office. Now more than ever having a ballot initiative and spending lots of money on an all-out war doesn't make sense."