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Last gasp

Final word from the Weatherbird.

For workers and visitors to some businesses in St. Louis County, the countywide smoking ban has become a joke, instead of the good policy and common-sense public health effort it was supposed to be. On Jan. 2, 2011, after winning voter approval by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio, the county’s “Indoor Clean Air Code” took effect. And so, too, began the exemptions.

The ban was tightened in 2013 but still allows smoking in parts of facilities that provide care for the infirm, and in drinking establishments that collect less than 25 percent of gross revenue from food sales.

The result is that about 135 businesses can still allow smoking. These are places where the health of visitors and workers is endangered by “passive smoking,” exposure to secondhand smoke. The American Cancer Society says passive smokers are exposed to nicotine and toxic chemicals and that there is no safe level of exposure. Secondhand smoke causes lung cancer in nonsmokers and has been linked to a variety of other cancers.

In an ironic twist, many of the waivers may be in private and semi-private rooms at nursing homes and extended-care facilities.

This dithering by the St. Louis County Council must stop. Just about every week since the law was amended in February 2013, legislation to consider possible revocation of the exemptions has been tabled.

Even the sponsor of the legislation, County Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant, is in no hurry to push the issue. He says he wants to see the impact of the expanded ban in St. Louis city before the County Council votes. He’s also likely waiting to determine how a ban would affect several small, exempted bars in his district.

That’s malarkey. The health of innocent people is being negatively affected by the council’s inaction. Business owners contend that without a statewide smoking ban they can lose customers to a neighboring county, such as St. Charles, which doesn’t have a ban.

That may be a legitimate concern but, on the flip side, lots of customers might choose to visit St. Louis County establishments because they want to escape the smoking. The American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation says that as of last October, 81.9 percent of the population lived under a smoking ban in “workplaces, and/or restaurants, and/or bars, by either a state, commonwealth, or local law.”

Protecting public health is a legitimate government concern that outweighs the nanny-state complaints of smoking advocates. We all wind up footing part of the bill, through higher medical and insurance costs, when public health threats go ignored.

Anti-smoking activists say the county should match the ban in St. Louis city, where only Lumiere Place casino and designated rooms in the members-only Missouri Athletic Club are exempt.

We think those locations should be smoke-free, too, but that’s a topic for another day.