ST. LOUIS (AP) — A St. Louis County councilman said he will introduce legislation next week to remove all exemptions to the county's smoking ban, including at two local casinos.
Councilman Mike O'Mara said he will introduce a measure Tuesday in an effort to "level the playing field" for businesses that must comply with the ban while their competitors do not.
"I've heard from too many owners of bars and restaurants who have convinced me that it is unfair that some businesses have the exemption while others, sometimes located right up the street, don't," O'Mara, a Florissant Democrat, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (http://bit.ly/UUmC1F) on Friday. He said it's also a health issue.
There are 135 establishments in St. Louis County that have exemptions. Last year, the Tobacco-Free St. Louis Coalition asked O'Mara to remove the exemptions, citing a study showing a disproportionately high incidence of heart attacks and lung diseases in North County, which has the most exemptions from the ban.
O'Mara said he wasn't sure how his fellow council members would react to the proposal.
"We'll give business owners a chance to come in and plead their cases," he said. "My intention is not to hurt St. Louis County economically, but I think we need to start from scratch and remove all exemptions."
Officials at River City Casino and Hollywood Casino St. Louis could not be reached by the newspaper for comment. Casinos have been fierce opponents of smoking bans, and their gambling floors have been exempt from similar local measures in other parts of the state, including Kansas City.
Pat Lindsay, executive director of Tobacco-Free St. Louis, said she was surprised by O'Mara's proposal.
"We were not feeling support from most of the council," Lindsay said. "This is unexpected but excellent news and about time it happened. We need to protect all people from secondhand smoke."
In 2009, county voters approved the ban by a two-thirds majority. It took effect Jan. 2, 2011, exempting establishments where food sales comprise less than 25 percent of the annual total sales of food and beverages. It also exempted gambling floors at casinos.
When they crafted the smoking ban, council members said they wanted exemptions to protect small neighborhood bars whose owners feared a ban would drive them out of business. Ultimately, venues such as large bar-restaurants and bowling alley also qualified for exemptions.
St. Louis enacted a smoking ban at the same time as the county's ban went into effect. The city's exemptions are due to expire in 2016, and council members haven't shown an interest in changing that.
Across the river, Illinois banned smoking in public places, including casinos and bars, in 2008.
Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com