University-backed smoking ban referendum to appear on ballot

| Copy Chief

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley signed a bill on Friday to put a Washington University-backed smoking ban referendum on the November ballot, following weeks of heated County Council meetings and public debate.

“If you had asked me two months ago if I thought the voters in St. Louis County would have this opportunity in November, I would have said no,” said Robert Blaine, a medical public policy specialist at the University. “So I think it’s a significant step forward.”

The signature virtually assures the ban will go on the county ballot, meaning students registered to vote in Missouri who live west of the Brookings parking lot can vote on it. The bill’s sponsor, County Councilwoman Barbara Fraser, D-University City, has said the final step of getting a court order is a formality.

The final bill, its third version, will ask voters if they want to ban smoking in most indoor public places in the county. The ban would exempt bars—places where 75 percent of sales come from alcohol—casino floors and smoking lounges at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. Areas west of the Brookings lot, including a major chunk of the Delmar Loop, would fall under the ban.

On Aug. 4, the University pushed the County Council to put as comprehensive a ban on the ballot as possible. That day, the council was considering the first two bill versions: one with and one without exemptions for bars and casinos only.

Despite the final bill’s exemptions, Blaine said the University supports the ban going on the ballot and letting voters decide the issue.

“I think the University would encourage any individual to educate themselves about this issue and make a decision on their own,” Blaine said.

Many in the school community are in favor of the ban going on the ballot. Some have also praised the University for supporting a ballot measure and planning to go tobacco free in July 2010.

Still, some on campus remain unhappy with the University’s tobacco ban, saying officials failed to weigh student input before announcing it.

The University’s support of the referendum has sparked some debate over how much student input school officials should seek when taking a stance on local issues.

“The issue of student input on these sorts of decisions is an interesting thing we should look into more,” said senior Chase Sackett, speaker of the Student Union Senate, which passed a resolution last April decrying the lack of student input that went into the school’s tobacco ban.

The ballot measure will likely face an uphill battle because there are opponents on both sides of the debate. Smoking ban opponents, including a coalition of business owners led by Bill Hannegan of Keep St. Louis Free, worry a ban would drive business from St. Louis County.

Some supporters of a comprehensive smoking ban, including the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Society, oppose the ballot measure because they say it’s too weak. They also say the county will have trouble working its way up to a strong ban if it enacts a weak ban first.

“Tobacco Free Missouri is disappointed that it’s not a comprehensive law,” Nancy Mueller, chair of Tobacco Free Missouri statewide coalition, said Tuesday night. “I think that the county is not setting the precedent and the model that the rest of the state should be following.”

Mueller also said she’s glad to see the University go tobacco free and hopes the county will consider passing a stricter ban.

Fraser initially favored the first bill version, which had no exemptions, but the council voted it down on Aug. 4. After she amended the bill that same day to include the exemptions for bars and casinos, the council voted 4-3 to move it to a final vote.

But then Fraser opted to reintroduce the bill on Aug. 11 due to worries that a procedural problem at the Aug. 4 meeting would open the bill to legal challenge. The reintroduction, which added the airport exemption, caused the council to miss its deadline last Tuesday for putting items on the November ballot without a court order.

Public-health groups opposing the ballot measure preferred the bill version without exemptions. Their opposition could be a major blow to the ban’s chances of passing. The low turnout characteristic of off-year elections could also harm the ban’s chances.

It’s unclear, though, how the vote will be affected by the special election that day to replace former state Rep. Steve Brown, D-Clayton, who resigned last Tuesday due to a federal corruption scandal.

The county ban would take effect in January 2011.

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