County Council passes smoking ban bill endorsed by WU

County executive's signature, court's order needed for ban to appear on ballot

| Copy Chief

Correction Appended Below

Washington University Associate Professor of Medicine Walton Sumner speaks out in favor of the County Council’s smoking ban bill at the County Council meeting Tuesday night. Sumner is one of several school community members who have spoken in favor of the ban. (Matt Mitgang | Student Life)

Washington University Associate Professor of Medicine Walton Sumner speaks out in favor of the County Council’s smoking ban bill at the County Council meeting Tuesday night. Sumner is one of several school community members who have spoken in favor of the ban. (Matt Mitgang | Student Life)

The St. Louis County Council voted 4-3 Tuesday evening to approve a bill that would put a smoking ban on the November ballot, three weeks after Washington University endorsed the bill.

The bill sponsor, Councilwoman Barbara Fraser, D-University, praised the council’s vote. The bill’s passage “means the same thing [to students] as it means to citizens of the entire county, that we’ll have cleaner air,” Fraser said after the meeting. “They can go to restaurants and go to places where there will be clean air.”

County Executive Charles Dooley said he will decide in the coming days whether he’ll sign the bill. If he signs it, the county must get a court order to put the measure on the ballot. The measure would ban smoking in all indoor public places except bars—places where alcohol makes up 75 percent of sales—casinos and certain spaces at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

At the Aug. 4 council meeting, Blaine gave the University statement endorsing the bill. Blaine said the University wants the council to protect workers and customers from the ill health effects of secondhand smoke with the strictest ban possible.

“We recognize the dangers posed by secondhand smoke, and as an employer, the University has taken its own steps to protect our workers and eliminate smoking on our campuses,” Blaine told the council, mentioning the school’s recently announced tobacco ban for all five campuses.

Students living on campus or in St. Louis County and registered to vote in Missouri would be able to vote on the ban. Most of the Danforth Campus lies in St. Louis County, as do many popular social spots for students, including most of the Delmar Loop.

Many school community members are praising both the bill and the University’s endorsement, especially in light of the University’s tobacco ban, which takes effect in July 2010.

“It’s good that someone spoke up and said this was in the interest of our employees,” said Martha Bhattacharya, a postdoctoral fellow in developmental biology, who also spoke in favor of the county bill on Aug. 4.

But the bill has been controversial, with several crowded and heated council meetings last summer. Opponents say a ban will harm local businesses and perhaps force some to close.

Walton Sumner, associate professor of medicine, said he understands libertarians’ concerns over a ban’s potential economic effects but said he supports the county’s bill.

“I hope that the libertarians in the debate will acknowledge that there are property seizures going on every time a smoker or non-smoker gets sick in a room that is thick with smoke,” said Sumner, who spoke before the council Tuesday night. “Part of our job is to protect public health, and I hope we get there.”

Many students approved of the University’s tobacco ban. Others, including Student Union, criticized officials for not seeking student input and said the University was being too restrictive.

Some who opposed the University’s ban actually support or are open to a county ban because the University’s ban will be more restrictive, applying to all tobacco products and both indoors and outdoors on all five campuses.

“I don’t think they should ban smoking on campus. I think that’s a bad idea,” said junior Kenny Hofmeister, who criticized the University’s ban and the lack of student input in the University’s decision in an op-ed submission on April 17. “But I don’t disagree with banning smoking city- or countywide, as long as it’s indoors.”

Some students support a county smoking ban and don’t oppose the University’s ban, but do oppose the lack of student input in the school’s decision.

Another factor influencing campus opinion on the bill is the large number of people at the University from states and cities with bans, including Bhattacharya, a former San Francisco, Calif., resident.

“When I got here, that was one of the things that really affected where I chose to go in the area, and to this day I haven’t tried certain restaurants,” Bhattacharya said.

Blaine acknowledged that the county ban would further reduce the number of places where smokers living on campus can go. But he said there will still be some places.

“I just think the University’s position is that [where students go to smoke] shouldn’t be in close proximity to those who don’t want to be exposed to that hazard,” Blaine said.

Opinions on whether the University should have taken a stance on the bill are mostly positive. Those who disagree with the University said the school has the right to voice its stance.

Nancy Mueller, associate director of the Center for Tobacco Policy Research (CTPR) in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, said CTPR supports the concept of comprehensive policies to protect citizens from exposure to secondhand smoke, though the Center did not take a specific position on the county ordinance.

Smoking bans popped up across the region over the summer. In July, Clayton enacted a smoking ban with no exemptions for indoor public places, effective July 2010.

The city of St. Louis is also considering a public indoor smoking ban. The bill, sponsored by Alderwoman Lyda Krewson, D-28th Ward, would impose a ban without a ballot measure. St. Louis includes the medical school and the Central West End, a popular social spot for students.

St. Louis’ ban would only take effect if St. Louis County enacts its own ban. If both bans succeed, all University campuses and most surrounding indoor public places would become smoke-free.

The University, Blaine said, has endorsed only the county bill. But he added that the University hopes that “other municipalities will take these issues into consideration.”

Other anti-smoking measures the University has backed in the past include a 2006 state referendum to raise tobacco taxes. The University invested large amounts of money to promote the measure, Blaine said, because Missouri’s tobacco tax was the second lowest in the United States at the time. The measure failed by a 51 to 49 percent vote.

Blaine said the University also backed a failed effort that same year by the County Council to pass a smoking ban.

Correction: For the record (8/26/09, 1:23 p.m.)
An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that the Center for Tobacco Policy Research was located at the medical school; in fact, it is located in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work. Further, an earlier version of this article stated that the CTPR supported St. Louis County’s indoor smoking ban bill. While the CTPR supports the concept of smoking bans, they do not endorse specific pieces of legislation. Student Life regrets the errors.

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