Smoking ban to go before county voters

| Copy Chief

St. Louis County voters will render their verdict on a controversial smoking ban ballot measure on Tuesday, in an election that is expected to have very low turnout.

Known as Proposition N, the measure would ban smoking in most public indoor places in the county, effective January 2011. Bars that earn less than 25 percent of their sales from food, casino floors, smoking lounges at the St. Louis airport, and private clubs would be exempt.

The ban’s passage would also trigger a smoking ban in St. Louis that city aldermen passed on Oct. 23.

While the local community has been strongly divided, Washington University community members appear to favor the ban for public health reasons.

Senior James Mosbacher, a St. Louis-area resident, said he supports banning smoking in restaurants and will vote for the measure because it exempts bars.

“Part of the population that I think has made cities like Chicago so successful is young people,” Mosbacher said. “For businesses that conduct their sales not entirely on alcohol, I think that smoking is a drawback for those people to patronize these places.”

Martha Bhattacharya, postdoctoral fellow in developmental biology, has become perhaps the University community’s strongest advocate of the smoking ban, serving as treasurer of the pro-proposition campaign, County Citizens for Cleaner Air. Bhattacharya said she has encouraged some students she knows to vote.

In a recent op-ed submission to Student Life, Bhattacharya pushed students to turn out for the election, writing, “Last year, many of you registered to vote in St. Louis County in order to make a difference in the choice of our president. Please don’t let your civic responsibility stop there.”

When interviewed, some students who live in St. Louis County said they are not sure if they will vote, or they plan not to vote at all.
Sophomore Amy Plovnick said she supports the ban but has not decided if she will vote.

“This is really the only big issue people would be voting about,” Plovnick said. “I think it’s an important issue, but I don’t know if it’s that important to get me to go, but I’m going to try to vote.”

Turnout is expected to be very low throughout the county, largely because it is an off-year election with no high-level races on the ballot.

“We don’t have a Clinton or a Bush or even an Obama, much less a Senate race or House of Representatives race,” said Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “The people who will turn out are people who feel unusually strongly about the issue, for the most part.”

It’s not clear whether low turnout would sway the vote. Representatives of both sides have said they are working to mobilize voters.

The referendum originated over the summer in the St. Louis County Council as a bill, which was sponsored by Councilwoman Barbara Fraser, D-University City. Fraser has said the ban would not be perfect due to the exemptions but would still improve air quality without harming businesses.

Business and bar owners opposed to the ballot measure have argued that the ban would infringe upon their property rights.

Bill Hannegan of the anti-ban group Keep St. Louis Free has touted air filtration as an alternative to a smoking ban and said many bar owners are “worried sick” about the ban because it would drive customers to nearby counties.

Cicero’s Restaurant, which recently went smoke-free only in its dining area, will have to go completely smoke-free if the proposition passes. Bobby Francis, front-of-house manager of the popular destination for students on the Delmar Loop, said a ban would be “problematic” for bar customers who smoke, but did not know how it would affect business.

Ban supporters have said peer-reviewed studies show that air filtration is ineffective and that smoking bans do not negatively affect business.

Supporters have also said the ban on the ballot, though not comprehensive, would be a step in the right direction.

“There are a lot of bans that have started as local ordinances, and most of the local ordinances are not 100 percent comprehensive,” Bhattacharya said in an interview. “We have to start with something maybe a little less than perfect, but something that will substantially help the health of the county.”

Due to the trigger provision in the city’s smoking ban, county voters effectively will be determining the fates of both jurisdictions’ proposals.

In a debate on Monday in Clayton, Fraser said the trigger effect invalidates opponents’ argument that the proposition’s passage would create an uneven playing field between county and city businesses. She added that nearby counties “are looking seriously at this legislation, and that the domino effect will take place.”

Hannegan responded that the ban would cause non-exempt businesses to lose money to those that would be exempt.

“That’s not a level playing field,” Hannegan said.

Some public health groups, including the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association, have taken no stance on the proposition because they say it has too many exemptions.

Tuesday’s election will end a heated countywide battle that started in August, when the County Council debated multiple bill versions. The initial bill, which had no exemptions, was rejected, but a later bill version with the exemptions passed the council by a 4-3 vote on Aug. 25 and was later signed by County Executive Charlie Dooley.

At the Aug. 4 council meeting, Medical Public Policy Specialist Robert Blaine delivered a statement on behalf of the University urging the council to put a ban on the November ballot that was “as broad and as comprehensive as possible.” The statement came five months after the University announced a tobacco ban on its campuses, effective July 2010.

Despite the final bill’s exemptions, Blaine later said the University still supported putting the ban on the ballot, but he did not endorse the measure itself.

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