Thursday, September 20, 2012

Political Corruption in the Gateway City: If St. Louis Health Department Won't Stand Up for Health, Then What Will It Stand Up For?

In my 25 years in tobacco control, I have seen many cities and towns grant exemptions from smoking bans to certain types of establishments. But never have I seen a health department unlawfully exempt a particular establishment, thus willfully violating the law.

That all changed this week, when St. Louis city health department director Pam Walker decided to allow smoking at the downtown Missouri Athletic Club, in direct violation of the ordinance passed by the St. Louis City Council. That ordinance bans smoking in all bars and restaurants, including private clubs, unless there are no employees. Since the Missouri Athletic Club has multiple employees, it is subject to the smoking ban. However, after threatening a lawsuit (that would have no legal basis) and flexing its muscles, and after some apparent back-room deal-making, the health department announced that it would allow the Missouri Athletic Club to violate the law.

What is this? Chicago in the 1960's? Can wealth and prestige simply buy off policy makers? Apparently so.

David Hunn, the reporter who covers St. Louis government and politics for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, covered this important story in yesterday's paper.

He wrote: "No other city in the country has enacted a smoking ban and then willingly broken the ban to make an exception for one business, said Dr. Michael Siegel, who has tracked tobacco laws for 25 years. Siegel, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health, said city health director Pam Walker’s decision to allow smoking at downtown’s Missouri Athletic Club is the first of its kind. “I’ve never seen a health department essentially fight to provide an exemption for an entity,” Siegel said. He doesn’t even consider Walker’s decision an exemption. If the city scrapped the existing law, wrote a new bill, added an exemption for the MAC, and got it passed into law by the Board of Aldermen, that’d be one thing, Siegel said. “This is simply looking the other way,” he said. “They’re essentially saying they’re not going to enforce the legislation for this particular business.” “It really sours the entire integrity of the health department, I think,” he said."

If you haven't already seen it, please read my previous coverage of this issue:

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

St. Louis Health Director Shows that Money and Lawsuit Threats Do Talk, Suspends Smoking Ban for One Business Only (link)

The Rest of the Story

If the city of St. Louis wants to avoid being guilty of political corruption and the St. Louis Department of Health wants to retain any integrity, this decision needs to be revoked immediately and the law needs to be enforced as written. Otherwise, St. Louis is going to quickly become the laughing stock of public health nationally.

The rest of the story is that in one of the most egregious examples of political corruption affecting public health in my lifetime, the St. Louis Department of Health has succumbed to political pressure and agreed to knowingly look the other way in the face of recurrent and willful violation of city law.

In my opinion, not only is this a public health travesty, but the Department of Health and the Mayor's office need to be investigated by the Missouri Attorney General's office. Willful failure to enforce the law is in my view an abrogation of the responsibility to uphold the law.

Note: By stating that the health department was essentially "bought off," I am not suggesting that there was any payment of money in exchange for this agreement. Instead, I am arguing that by virtue of the wealthy status of the Downtown Athletic Club and its membership, this business was able to achieve the equivalent of an exemption, while other businesses that have less money and are less well politically connected, have no hope of getting the health department to look the other way. 

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