The lopsided vote on Tuesday to prohibit smoking in most public places in St. Louis County could spell a quick reversal of the ban’s exemption for casino gambling floors, a member of the County Council said Wednesday.
About two-thirds of county voters favored the ban, which will take effect on Jan. 2, 2011. A city ban, dependent on the county vote, will also kick in then.
Steve Stenger, the County Council member who insisted that any ban include a casino exemption, said he expected the council to move next year to rescind it.
“With upwards of 65 percent of the people voting in favor of the ban, I think you can see the day coming to phase out that exemption,” said Stenger, D-Affton. “Tuesday showed very clearly that most people do not want to be exposed to smoke in any public place.”
Stenger predicted that the County Council would take action to eliminate the exemption shortly after the ban takes affect in 2011. If it chose, the council could change the ordinance on its own without submitting it to public vote again.
Stenger’s district includes the River City Casino under construction in Lemay. Currently, Harrah’s in Maryland Heights is the only casino operating in the county.
Council member Barbara Fraser, D-University City, sponsored the legislation that led to Proposition N to ban smoking. The original ordinance did not include an exemption for casinos.
Stenger refused to back that proposition unless gambling floors were excluded.
His vote was key, as the measure to put Proposition N on the ballot passed 4-3.
Stenger said he insisted on the exemption for two reasons.
“One was that I was concerned that residents who smoke and gamble in the county would take their business to the St. Charles casino (Ameristar),” he said. “The other was that casino interests made it known that if they were included in the ban, they would spend $11 million to annihilate the proposal. And then we’d be left with no ban at all.”
Harrah’s management declined on Wednesday to comment.
Fraser said Wednesday she would like to remove the casino exemption, as long as it was tied to removal of the exemption for small bars that don’t sell much food.
“I don’t think we should do one without the other,” Fraser said.
The city ban also has an exemption for casino gambling floors.
REACTION POURS IN
The city and county exemptions drew attention on many fronts Wednesday.
Those who fought the bans said the casino exemption was unconstitutional, and could be used to invalidate the entire proposition.
At O’Connell’s Pub off South Kingshighway, the talk was how to measure a bar’s square footage so that it would be protected by the city’s five-year exemption for bars under 2,000 square feet.
And in Maplewood, a restaurant owner who opposed the ban is adamantly against exemptions.
Bill Hannegan, an activist against both smoking bans, said opponents met Wednesday with lawyers to discuss ways to overturn them.
He called the county ban unconstitutional “special-interest” legislation that favors casinos.
And he said his group has discussed an initiative petition to address the most restrictive provisions of the city ban. His group, Keep St. Louis Free, views the city ban as more onerous than the county ban, which has the exemption for bars that make less than 25 percent of their revenue off food.
The city ban, he said, “will be catastrophic to the bar industry in the city,” and increase unemployment, he said.
The city exemption related to a bar’s size probably has some tavern owners looking for a tape measure.
The city ban allows bars with 2,000 square feet or less of service space — which does not include the kitchen, bathrooms or storage space — to wait until 2016 before customers have to butt out.
The goal of the provision was to protect neighborhood taverns already stung by a sour economy.
Fred Parker, general manager of O’Connell’s, said “people are going to do whatever they can to keep their business afloat.”
“I can just say I measured it wrong,” Parker said. “Who knows how to measure square feet in the bar business?”
Parker says his bar will be close to the square footage threshold.
Over at the 24-hour Tiffany’s Original Diner in downtown Maplewood, owner Greg Winchell was pondering his options.
Smoking often goes hand-in-hand with his diner’s specialty, eggs-with-the-works “Slingers.”
He has no room to build an outdoor smoking area.
Winchell, who testified against the ban before the County Council, emphasized his opposition to exceptions.
“If it’s a ban, it’s a ban,” Winchell said.
SMOKY AT HARRAH’S
By midmorning Wednesday, it was smoky as usual inside Harrah’s casino in Maryland Heights.
Even in the casino’s coffee shop, dubbed the Aroma, the prevailing smell was cigarette smoke.
Mike Crisel, 60, of St. Ann, dropped by to hit the slot machines. He puffed on a cigarette as he walked toward the front door.
“Smoking, gambling and drinking go together for me,” Crisel said. “If I can’t have a cigarette and gamble here, then I’ll go across the river to St. Charles.”
But other gamblers who smoke said a ban at the casino would not stop them from attending Harrah’s.
“I would look at it as a good excuse to quit,” said Joe Elliott, 55, of Fenton.
Larry Thomason, 38, of Rolla, Mo., said stepping outside for a few puffs was no great inconvenience.
“In all honesty, I’m just as happy to step outside and smoke,” said Thomason, who smokes two packs a day. “I think most smokers feel that way, to tell you the truth. We don’t want to make a big deal out of nothing.”