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Cigarette butts

ST. LOUIS • A bar owner is asking a judge to block the city’s smoking ban just days before exemptions to the law are set to expire.

The smoking ban, officially known as the “Smoke Free Air Act,” took effect in 2011 with a set of five-year exemptions for bars that met certain requirements. Those exemptions will expire on Jan. 1, meaning New Year’s Day will be the last time to legally smoke in exempted bars.

The city’s Lumière Place casino will keep its exemption, which has become a point of contention with some bar owners who say it sets a double-standard.

Herbert Krischke, owner of the Trophy Room, filed the suit on Christmas Eve asking a St. Louis circuit judge to block the city from enforcing the ordinance or declare it unconstitutional. In part, the suit argues the law “grants a special or exclusive right, privilege or immunity” to the deep-pocketed casinos.

The city has about 100 exempted bars.

Krischke and other city bar owners believe they’ve found a loophole to the existing law.

The five-year exemptions are currently expiring for bars that make 25 percent or less of their income from food, are no larger than 2,000 square feet and do not allow anyone under 21 inside. But exemptions exist indefinitely for casino gaming areas, private clubs with no employees and tobacco retail stores.

Bar owners who participate in Missouri Lottery’s keno program claim they can be considered a casino gaming area. The game requires the bars to be licensed as such.

Maggie Crane, a spokeswoman for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, said Monday: “The city has yet to be served, but what I can tell you is that establishments have had five years to comply in order to protect people’s rights to clean air in city businesses.”

St. Louis County passed a similar smoking ban to the city’s and allowed exemptions. Those exemptions, however, don’t have a sunset date.

As for casinos, the city ban is tied to the surrounding areas. If St. Louis County and St. Charles County prohibit smoking in casino gaming areas, then the city exemption is lifted.

Charles P. Stanley Cigar Company and Lounge, a downtown cigar smokers’ destination at Washington Avenue and North 11th Street, is not a part of the suit. But the bar says it has found another loophole.

The bar’s existence was in peril over the exemption issue.

“The great news is we got clarification from the city and the health department about the statute,” said Patrick Stanley, a co-owner.

Stanley says because his business is made up of 50 percent tobacco or tobacco-related products, he can be considered a tobacco retail store instead of a bar. Thus, the smoking and drinking will continue unabated.

“It’s seamless,” Stanley said.

The coming year marks the 140th anniversary of the company’s founding by Stanley’s great-grandfather. The cigar company went out of business during the Great Depression but was rekindled by family heirs in 2011 on Washington Avenue, just a few blocks from where the company began.

Even with the exemptions in place, the city has struggled to enforce the smoking ban.

Now, some bar owners say they will ignore the law and the sunset on exemptions — a move that has precedent.

The posh Missouri Athletic Club, a well-connected, private social organization in downtown, openly flouted the law in 2011. It was eventually fined for allowing smoking, but the club refused to pay. The group was ineligible for an exemption.

Worried that the club would make a legal challenge, the city eventually reached an agreement with the organization, dropped the fines, and allowed smoking in four areas of the club, saying it is a “unique entity.”

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Nicholas J.C. Pistor is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.