Ventilation systems in St. Louis bars and restaurants don't protect employees and patrons from secondhand smoke, according to a new study.
The findings, which replicate studies done elsewhere, were released Wednesday by Washington University's Center for Tobacco Policy Research.
The study involved placing monitors in a sample of 10 bars and 10 restaurants in St. Louis and St. Louis county for seven days in the summer of 2009 to measure nicotine levels in the air.
Venues that allow smoking had 31 times the amount of nicotine in the air compared to smoke-free establishments, the monitors showed. Bars and restaurants with smoke ventilation systems also had higher concentrations of nicotine, contributing to a long-standing theory that the systems just recirculate the polluted air.
"No, the results are not surprising, but we didn't have this data specific to St. Louis," said Sarah Moreland-Russell, the center's research manager. Moreland-Russell said the numbers would be helpful in the push for more laws banning smoking in Missouri.
Researchers asked the owners of 68 establishments if they would participate in the study and remain anonymous before finding 20 to agree. Four of the participating businesses already had voluntary smoking bans.
Moreland-Russell said even though they did not test the air in most restaurants and bars in the area, she's confident the study's findings would be universal.
"Don't go to an establishment that allows smoking, because you're going to find the same results," she said.
Ten of the venues had ventilation systems beyond air conditioning, but the study does not specify the type of system.
That's a flaw in the study, said Bill Hannegan, who has fought against smoking bans in the area. Air purification systems can range from a simple fan to sophisticated machines that cost thousands.
The Double D Lounge in Brentwood has the area's best purification system, Hannegan said.
"If the air is bad there, I'll concede their point," he said.
Researchers would not disclose which venues participated in the study. The cost of the study, funded by the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Foundation, was also not released.
Prior studies have shown that ventilation can redistribute the smoke throughout a building, limiting its effectiveness. Purification systems can remove the appearance and odor of smoke, but not all of the small particulate matter that can reach the lungs.
The Atlanta-based American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers put out a statement in 2005 saying that ventilation systems cannot protect against the health risks of secondhand smoke.
A report from the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General a year later said indoor smoking bans are the only effective way to eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke, and that 'separating smokers from nonsmokers, cleaning the air, and ventilating buildings cannot eliminate exposures of nonsmokers to secondhand smoke."
An earlier study of 10 St. Louis city bars (including two that voluntarily banned smoking) showed that indoor air pollution was six times higher in the smoking establishments. That study, released in 2008, was funded in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health.
The latest study came a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the U.S. smoking rate, which has remained at 20 percent since 2005.
Missouri's smoking rate, 23.1 percent, is higher than all states except Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma and West Virginia.
Thirty states, including Illinois, have bans on smoking in restaurants, according to the CDC. Of those, 24 states have also outlawed smoking in bars.
John Postel, a manager at the Highlands restaurant and brewery in Kirkwood, said that city's smoking ban has improved business, especially among families.
"We've seen an uptick in business overall," Postel said at a news conference Wednesday at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. "The sky did not fall, and things keep moving in a good direction."