When sweeping smoking bans take effect next year, many bar patrons might not even notice the difference

Krueger's Bar and Grill is a block and a world away from the Ritz-Carlton. Here, on Forsyth Boulevard a few hundred feet past Clayton's border with University City, there's taxidermy mounted on the walls, a Willie Nelson tune humming on the jukebox and bottles of Busch lined up along the bar.

But before the senses take in any of that, another element of Krueger's vibe informs the well-heeled Ritz guest that he has wandered far afield from the fancy hotel down the street. What pops you in the snot locker the instant you step through the front door of this blue-collar watering hole is the unmistakable scent of tobacco. Generations of smokers have imbued the one-room space, whose uninterrupted heritage as a saloon dates back to 1936, with a patina of smoke that clings to the red-brick walls like an invisible coat of paint.

Inside on a frigid January afternoon, Adam Becker snatches black plastic ashtrays from atop the bar's cigarette machine and sets them in front of familiar customers before they can even take their seats. Tall and lanky with a generous hooked nose and a broad smile, Becker inherited the business from his father, Charlie, who bought the place in 1946 and elected to leave the name of the previous proprietor on the sign out front.

Ninth Ward Alderman Ken Ortmann enjoys a cigar at the Cat's Meow, his family's Soulard bar — which likely will permit smoking indoors in 2011 despite a citywide ban.
Ninth Ward Alderman Ken Ortmann enjoys a cigar at the Cat's Meow, his family's Soulard bar — which likely will permit smoking indoors in 2011 despite a citywide ban.

Becker says his father is appalled by the indoor smoking bans recently approved in the St. Louis area. "He's overwhelmed," the tavernkeeper says, shaking his head. "He just can't believe you can tell people what to do with their own businesses."

The younger Becker, on the other hand, says he can hardly wait for the day in July when the city of Clayton begins enforcing the smoking restrictions its council ratified this past summer. Ditto January 2011, when similar ordinances take effect in the City of St. Louis and throughout St. Louis County. The laws will prohibit smoking indoors in government buildings and most public places, including many restaurants and bars. (View a PDF of the St. Louis City ordinance. View a PDF of the St. Louis County ordinance.)

But Becker's not eager for the day he'll finally be able to leave work without smelling like an ashtray. No, the barman, who says he has smoked Marlboro reds since, well, "shit, for a long time," is thrilled because he fully expects Krueger's to be among the businesses that are exempt from the county's ban, owing to an exception for bars that earn most of their money from liquor sales.

Because Krueger's is located just outside of Clayton — a municipality where all restaurants and bars will be smoke-free — Becker intends to cash in on the crowd of soon-to-be-displaced tobacco users.

"I think business will boom," he predicts. "I already have some customers asking if we'll be exempt. I'm figuring out how to cater to them. I was thinking about putting a big sticker on the door that says 'Smokers Welcome.'"

Krueger's situation is hardly unique.

The city's smoking ban, approved this past October by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, contains its own gaping loophole, a provision that will permit many small taverns to continue to allow smoking for at least the next five years.

"Thank God it's not going to affect us," says Marci Miki, the bartender at Rosie's Place, a smoke-steeped hole-in-the-wall on Laclede Avenue in the Central West End. "People across the street at those restaurants — when they want to come smoke and drink, they'll come right over here."

Of course, not everyone is enthusiastic about the new regime. Many business owners who will be subject to the prohibitions fear they'll lose loyal but nicotine-addicted customers to competitors like Krueger's and Rosie's.

Meantime, smoking-ban advocates lament that the local measures, while better than nothing, are among the least stringent in the nation.

The breakdown of businesses that will or won't be entitled to exemptions remains hazy. The public officials who will be in charge of implementing the laws when they take effect next year aren't even sure how they'll go about deciding who qualifies or how they'll sanction scofflaws.

Aiming to lift the smoke screen, Riverfront Times set out to compile a list of the bars that could sidestep the bans. The paper interviewed local policymakers and obtained public records that contain liquor-license data.

Our tally: Of roughly 1,700 establishments licensed to pour liquor in the city and county, at least 218 appear to be immune to the new ordinances. If you're the number-crunching type, that translates to nearly 13 percent. (View a list of city and county bars likely to skirt the bans).

Click here to participate in a survey to pinpoint the smokiest bars in St. Louis.

Such lists shed light on the types of establishments that will be off the hook when the bans take effect, but they also raise questions: How did the loopholes come to exist? What is the potential economic impact — both for the bars that qualify for immunity and those that don't? And just how, exactly, will the laws be enforced?

"We'll have smokeasies," jokes Bob Kraiberg, commissioner of the St. Louis City Excise Division. "Can you imagine? 'Hey listen, you can go over to Fred's, go in the back door, knock three times, and the secret word is "light it up."'"


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