Drag King: Bill Hannegan can't stop huffing and puffing about smoking bans in St. Louis

Drag King: Bill Hannegan can't stop huffing and puffing about smoking bans in St. Louis.

Bill Hannegan comes from a storied St. Louis family. His grandfather, Robert E. Hannegan, was co-owner and team president of the St. Louis Cardinals in the late 1940s, and chairman of the Democratic National Committee. In the 1920s, Hannegan's great-grandfather, Edward, was the mob-busting chief of detectives for the St. Louis Police Department.

"They say he kept Al Capone from coming here," Hannegan boasts from a seat at Herbie's Vintage 72, a restaurant and bar near his Central West End home on Lindell Boulevard. "They used to call it 'Hannegan's town.'"

In an odd way, St. Louis remains "Hannegan's town." But now, rather than fighting crime, the latest in the family line is locked in a battle to keep lawmakers from even thinking about implementing a smoking ban for area bars and restaurants.

Hannegan is the founder of Keep St. Louis Free, an organization that vows to preserve the rights of local smokers to light up at their favorite watering hole.

The man is so obsessive about his cause that when the St. Louis County Council in 2006 tried to outlaw smoking in indoor public places, he took a six-month leave from his job as a restoration painter. He proceeded to enlist his teenage kids to write and call the mayors of all 91 municipalities and spent $15,000 — part of his inheritance left over from when his grandfather sold his share of the Cardinals — to lobby against the proposed law.

"I just went ballistic," recounts the 51-year-old Hannegan.

Hannegan helped snuff out the county's proposed smoking ban and has been on a crusade ever since. He's even taken his fight nationwide. By his own count, he's contacted representatives from 22 state legislatures and 100 city councils.

"A bar is kind of a place where people can be bad," Hannegan says. "Society needs a place where they can let their hair down and tell jokes they can't tell anywhere else. A bar isn't supposed to be a daycare center in terms of air quality."

Ironically, Hannegan insists he's not a regular smoker, saying he confines his habit to a few American Spirits over a beer or two at the bar. "It really isn't about smoking," Hannegan says. "I'm not pro-smoking. I'm pro-freedom."

He is such an outspoken advocate for the pro-smoking cause that last year Marth Brothers and Company, a local business which sells filtration systems to help clean the air in smoky bars, adopted him as its unofficial spokesman. Now he touts air purification as the sensible alternative to banning smoking in closed quarters.

One of the company's co-owners, Mike Marth, accompanied Hannegan to an interview at Herbie's, where three of the air-filtration systems were recently installed in the restaurant's bar and private cigar room.

"It takes the dirty air in the room and puts it through a particulate and chemical process, then puts air out that's 99.5 percent pure," claims Marth. "You could have an anthrax attack and be safe in this room."

Shea Behymer, general manager at Herbie's, says the restaurant's owners installed the air purifiers in order to lure back the customers who had left when the owners of Balaban's — the café that for decades housed the space now occupied by Herbie's — instituted a strict no-smoking policy. They eventually went out of business.

Many bar and restaurant owners fear that a citywide smoking ban would have a similarly disastrous impact on their own businesses. They point out that since the smoking ban in Illinois took effect in 2008, casinos and bars just across the Mississippi River have reported a 20 percent drop in revenue.

"I'm a firm believer that, if anything, the state should do it. I don't want to put us in competition with surrounding counties," says Stephen Gregali, a St. Louis alderman. "Unfortunately, just like Mr. Hannegan lobbies against bans, there are certain individuals who are so adamantly in favor of a ban that they don't care about commerce."

Not surprisingly, smoking-ban advocates have a fierce rivalry with Hannegan and his followers.

"The guy, apparently, has no life and apparently sits in front of his computer all day," says Steve Smith, the owner of the Royale, a bar on South Kingshighway Boulevard who put the kibosh on smoking in April of 2008. "Occasionally they'll put comments up about my place on the Internet. I usually try and stay clear. For every one message you put up, they put up 50."

Adds Smith: "They just keep going for excuses each time to justify wanting people to spew carcinogens in the air."

One local anti-smoking group, Smoke-Free St. Louis City, went so far as to secretly test the air quality in bars with filtration systems, hoping to debunk Hannegan's boast that the purifiers offer a safe alternative to a smoking ban. Diana Benanti, the organization's director, says the undercover tests revealed "a high amount of cancer-causing particles in the air."

"We don't interact with him," Benanti says of Hannegan. "He does have some supporters and followers and everything, but he has his data and we have our data. We prefer ours."

"Intellectual arguments just don't do it," Hannegan says of his opponents. "People are mad at smokers — the people who lit a cigarette next to them when they sat down at a restaurant. They hate the people who say, 'If you don't like smoke, don't go to a bar.'"

Such steadfast devotion to his cause has made Hannegan a veritable messiah to local smokers and libertarian groups that admire his hands-off government ideals.

"He is kind of a dog with the bone," says Tony Palazzolo, a cigar lover who began supporting Hannegan's efforts after seeing some comments he'd left on a local blog. "He's committed to it, that's for certain. I'm pretty committed, but he's putting his own money into it."

Hannegan, meanwhile, is confident that a smoking ban in St. Louis won't be coming anytime soon. Presently, there is no legislation pending or ballot initiative being circulated that would prohibit smoking indoors in the state, city or county. Still, he has no plans to quit blowing smoke at supporters of smoking bans.

"It never really stops," he says. "I'll be working, and I'm thinking about what's going on, what's next, who am I going to write, what am I going to say. When you get into a cause, it doesn't really stop, and it's always in your head. I've seen people get caught up in causes, and it can be a problem because it takes over your life."

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