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CLAYTON • St. Louis County's new smoking ban is proving to be a great inconvenience for nursing homes, operators say.

The ban included an exemption that allows smoking in residents' rooms if all occupants agree. But state law requires that all smoking be supervised in nursing homes.

That was not a problem when smoking was permitted in common areas. But nursing home operators say they do not have enough personnel to supervise smoking in individual rooms.

Last week, Cheryl Wilson, director of the Long Term Care Ombudsman Program in Brentwood, wrote to members of the County Council to ask them to revise the ordinance to allow smoking in designated areas of the facilities. The ombudsman program is federally funded and oversees long-term care facilities.

"We've been getting calls from facilities asking 'What do we do?'" Wilson said. "What this (ban) has done is effectively outlaw smoking in all nursing homes because it's just impossible for them to supervise smoking in each and every room."

Wilson cited a state regulation that allows smoking "only in designated areas."

County Counselor Patricia Redington said the county's ban, which took effect Jan. 2, is consistent with the state regulation, though she concedes that allowing smoking in individual rooms may prove inconvenient for nursing homes.

"The ban was crafted to have very minimal exceptions and I suspect the County Council did not want smoking in lounges where workers might be exposed," Redington said.

A smoking ban that took effect in the city of St. Louis at the same time as the county's prohibits smoking in all "private and semi-private rooms" of nursing homes and does not include an exemption for residents' rooms.

Wilson said that nursing home operators have told her that, by and large, they have been ignoring the law and allowing residents to continue smoking as they had before, though not in their rooms, as that is considered a fire hazard.

"You can't expect older people to go outside and smoke right after we've had an ice storm," Wilson said. "One nursing home has a 100-year-old man who has been smoking since he was 10 years old. How can you tell him he can't smoke anymore?"

County Council Chairman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, said the smoking ban included an exemption to allow people to smoke inside their homes, and the council wanted nursing home residents to be included in that exemption.

"Any time that you legislate for the public health, and particularly with a smoking ban, there are going to be ramifications," Stenger said.

He said the council is willing to meet with nursing home operators and residents.

"We want to do anything we can for nursing homes to protect the rights of the residents and do that in the least-restrictive way possible," Stenger said. "We'll figure out something that is mutually agreeable."