Monday, June 25, 2012

In Backroom Deal, St. Louis Health Director Agrees to Exempt Missouri Athletic Club from Smoking Ban

Colonel Benjamin Church Hypocrisy Hall of Shame Award

Awarded to: St. Louis Health Director Pam Walker      Gold Rank

Awarded for: Agreeing to a backroom deal that exempts the Missouri Athletic Club from a smoking ban, while arguing that all other businesses must comply with the ban for health reasons.

Other Hall of Shame Members:

Attorney General of Florida  SILVER RANK

National Anti-smoking Organization  GOLD RANK

Mayor of New York City        BLUE RANK

U.S. Senator, New Jersey   BRONZE RANK

State Senator, New York     DIAMOND RANK 


Today, I am announcing the induction of the 6th member of the Colonel Benjamin Church Hypocrisy Hall of Shame, and the second member to be inducted at the Gold level.

A smoking ban went into effect in St. Louis in 2011, barring smoking in all restaurants and other places of employment, but not including bars whose square footage is less than 2000 or private clubs without employees. The Missouri Athletic Club in St. Louis does not qualify as a small bar, nor as a private club without employees. Thus, it is subject to the smoking ban, or at least it is supposed to be subject to the ban.

According to an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "The 109-year-old downtown Missouri Athletic Club may wriggle free from the city's smoking ban. City officials have prepared an agreement which exempts the private, invitation-only establishment — long frequented by judges, attorneys and politicians — from the municipal no-smoking ordinance. The club, known as the MAC, has flouted the law since it was enacted Jan. 1, 2011, openly leaving ashtrays in the lounge, hosting hazy boxing matches and allowing men in suits to gather weekly at the bar with tumblers in one hand, cigars in the other. The city cited and fined the club twice. The citations ended up in municipal court, where attorneys began working out a deal."

"On Thursday, city Health Director Pam Walker presented a draft agreement to her advisory commission, the Joint Boards of Health and Hospitals, arguing that the nonprofit MAC is a unique entity, governed neither by rules for private clubs nor by those for businesses. If approved, the agreement would bar smoking in the employees' lounge, but allow club members to continue to smoke in four locations: The Art Lounge, in the first floor lobby; The Jack Buck Grille, inside the club's first-floor restaurant, after 2 p.m.; the private dining rooms next to the Sportsman's Club, after 2 p.m.; and in the Missouri Room, three times a year for special events." ...

"This is the whole problem with government," said Joe Finn, owner of Pat's Bar & Grill in the city's Dogtown neighborhood, adding that the ban is killing his business. "All things are equal, but some things are more equal than others. I don't have the money — I don't have the clout — to make these backroom deals." "Others wondered what such a ruling would mean for the region. Could private city veterans' halls, for instance, ask for similar exemptions? Is this kind of agreement even legal?"

"I'm not against the MAC, but I think what they're doing is illegal," said Keep St. Louis Free Director Bill Hannegan, who lobbied against the smoking ban. The state constitution, he said, bars ordinances that single out businesses. "We'd like to see the MAC fight the law, not get themselves an exemption."

The Rest of the Story

There is no ambiguity about the law and whether it applies to the Missouri Athletic Club. It applies. The Club is neither a private club without employees nor is it a bar. Thus, it is subject to the ban.

Clearly, what is happening here is exactly what Bill Hannegan (one of our own Rest of the Story readers and commenters) and Joe Finn say is happening. This is a backroom deal that, with no legal basis, excludes one establishment from the law in order to appease a privileged and influential sociopolitical class of individuals: the city's politicians.

If this were "Joe's Bar & Grill," or I should say "Pat's Bar & Grill," the matter wouldn't even be up for discussion. I'm sure that Walker wouldn't have even agreed to meet with Mr. Finn to discuss an exemption. But when politicians talk, she is suddenly ready to listen. The table is open to deals. And it's especially open to unlawful deal-making when the establishment in question has money and therefore economic and political clout.

This is the worst kind of political elitism. It is exactly the kind of back-door negotiating between government officials and private aristocracy that democratic polity despises.

And it therefore the worst kind of hypocrisy. The St. Louis Health Department is basically saying that employees and the public need to be protected from the hazards of secondhand smoke, but not if the establishment is an elitist one which serves politicians. Then, public health principles go out the window and a backroom deal can buy you an exemption from the law.

In St. Louis, the law only applies, I guess, to "lower-class" establishments that serve the 99%. Elitist joints that serve the 1% aren't subject to the same laws. They can essentially buy their way out of having to follow the law by using their political, economic, and legal clout. Threaten a lawsuit and be able to back up the threat with money and the public health department will back down. No longer will the public health principles of protecting people from the hazards of secondhand smoke be paramount.

This is hypocrisy at the highest level. If the Missouri Athletic Club is granted an exemption when there is no lawful exemption written into the city ordinance, then why shouldn't Pat's Bar & Grill and hundreds of other establishments in the city be allowed to negotiate for exemptions through their own backroom deals?

Why didn't the ordinance simply specify (in a new section - section 17) that any establishment with political and economic clout could apply for an exemption from the law through a special exception that could be arranged through a backdoor deal? That's exactly what the Health Department is doing, and that is why its director - Pam Walker - has joined this private club - the Colonel Benjamin Church Hypocrisy Hall of Shame - as a gold club member.

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