Tuesday, September 18, 2012

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

Proving that policy makers can still essentially be bought off by wealthy and influential individuals and scared off by the veiled threat of lawsuits, City of St. Louis Health Director Pam Walker has granted an exemption to a private club that serves wealthy people in the city, while requiring all other bars, restaurants, and private clubs to remain smoke-free as called for by a city ordinance.  

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.

However, after threatening the city with a lawsuit and apparently holding backroom meetings with the city, the downtown Missouri Athletic Club was able to win an exemption from the smoking ban from the City Health Department.

City health department director Pam Walker acknowledged that she was granting an exemption to the aristocratic club earlier this week.

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. Or ... it should be.

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

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?

As Hannegan asks: "It opens the door for bars to petition for their own exemption. If she can do this for the MAC, why can’t she do this for other establishments?"

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 a private club of her own - the Colonel Benjamin Church Hypocrisy Hall of Shame - as a gold club member.

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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