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

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

This Week's Cover

View this week's cover.

Related to this story
St. Louis smoke-free trivia

You can still smoke here: Taverns in St. Louis where you light up after the ban

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.

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."'"

The Cat's Meow is a Soulard institution about the size of a large walk-in closet. Thick wire screens protect the windows from errant bottles, and Mardi Gras beads drape behind the bar like a gaudy rainbow. The bar's so close to the Anheuser-Busch brewery that it seems like Budweiser ought to flow from the water faucets.

The Meow is owned and operated by the family of Ken Ortmann, a member of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen who represents the Ninth Ward, an area that includes parts of Benton Park, Dutchtown and the southern half of Soulard, where the tavern is located.

A burly Hemingway doppelgänger with a neatly trimmed silver beard, Ortmann voted against the ban, though he earlier voted in favor of exempting bars smaller than 2,000 square feet (not counting bathrooms, storage areas and kitchen space).

"We get a lot of working people in here that smoke and have a bucket of beer," Ortmann says, explaining his votes. "That's the people we would lose. It's not like people are going to stop being sociable. They'd still come in and have one or two, but then they'd leave."

Ortmann disclosed his private interest, thus satisfying the city's rules regarding conflicts of interest. So did Tenth Ward Alderman Joseph Vollmer, proprietor of Milo's Tavern on the Hill, who backed the exemption in committee. (Vollmer was absent for the full board's votes on the exemption amendment and ban.)

The small-bar exemption was the brainchild of Alderman Craig Schmid of the Twentieth Ward, which includes a large swath of Cherokee Street and parts of Marine Villa, Dutchtown and Benton Park West. Schmid suggested early on, while the bill was still in committee, that the ban should not apply to bars smaller than 1,500 square feet.

"We were trying to achieve the goal of not putting small businesses out of business. Basically it's going to be your corner bar, the smaller locations," Schmid explains. "And I guess you're trying to do the greatest benefit for the most people. The largest [bars] have the greatest number of employees being exposed to smoke."

His introduction of the provision caught activists on both sides of the issue off-guard.

For one thing, the Twentieth Ward contains very few drinking establishments — a mere sixteen liquor-license holders — and none of them will likely qualify for an exemption.

Bill Hannegan, a leader of the anti-ban group Keep St. Louis Free, says he expected the aldermen to compose a much broader bar exemption, one that would include all establishments that are off-limits to minors.

"We were stunned," Hannegan says. "All of a sudden Craig Schmid pulls this stuff about 1,500 square feet out of the sky. He even admitted it's arbitrary. I was, like, 'Where did you get this shit?'"

"There's lots of other ways to water down a smoke-free bill. This was a curveball," says Stacy Reliford, who's on the steering committee of the group Smoke-Free St. Louis. "It's not really an exemption that we've seen really anywhere else in the country. It's one of those unique-to-St. Louis situations."

Reliford also questions Schmid's version of pragmatism: "The small places that are exempt are most smoky and need it the most. It runs against common sense."

When the bill went before the entire Board of Aldermen, Ward Two's Dionne Flowers suggested upping the Schmid exemption to bars totaling 2,000 square feet or less. Flowers says she came up with the standard after hearing that the Board of Aldermen's meeting room measured 3,000 square feet.

After a heated three-hour debate on October 23, the board approved the ordinance, with the 2,000-foot clause, by a vote of twenty to seven.

The city's restrictions cover 23 different types of public places, including government buildings, sports arenas, professional offices, retail stores, nursing homes and daycare centers. Smoking will be permitted in outdoor areas of places of employment and within open-air patios of bars. Establishments that continue to allow smoking inside will be required to post signs in "black bold Arial font at 98 point size" — letters three-quarters of an inch tall that read "WARNING: SMOKING ALLOWED HERE."

The square-foot exemption is scheduled to expire in 2016, but Ortmann says that may change: "Who's to say that in four or five years we don't come up with an amendment to get rid of the sunset clause?"

In addition to the small-bar caveat, the law permits smoking on casino gaming floors and in private residences and tobacco shops. Also excluded are "private clubs that have no employees," though the bill explicitly states that the club exemption "shall not apply to any organization that is established for the purpose of avoiding compliance with this Ordinance."

Believing that taking the lead with restrictions would put the city's businesses at a competitive disadvantage, the aldermen included a clause stating that the ordinance would not take effect until a similar measure was enacted in St. Louis County.

On August 25 the St. Louis County Council voted by a margin of four to three to put a smoking-ban referendum on last year's November 3 ballot. Voters approved the measure, Prop N, by an emphatic two-to-one margin.

This law contains its own exemptions. It does not apply to casino gaming areas, private clubs, certain rooms in nursing homes, cigar bars already in operation, or to stage plays "where smoking is a required part of the production." Also excluded are the smoking lounges at Lambert Airport. (The airport is owned by the City of St. Louis. Kara Bowlin, spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay, says the mayor has "been working with the new airport director to ensure that Lambert Airport, like all city-owned buildings, will be smoke-free in 2011.")

More significantly, the county law excludes all bars that derive more than 75 percent of their revenue from liquor sales alone.

For that reason, many health groups and hard-line ban supporters refused to endorse it.

"Health, lung and cancer associations that I deal with on a daily basis, they're saying, 'We have to oppose this,'" says Pat Lindsey, director of the Tobacco Prevention Center at Saint Louis University. "All the experts say, 'It's a bad ordinance. It has too many exemptions, and it's too hard to go back and fix it later.'"

Bronson Frick, associate director of the San Francisco-based group Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, says loopholes are common in smoke-free laws. The statewide ban in California, for instance, excludes "owner-operated" establishments — a technicality Frick says many businesses have exploited by "making every employee a .0001 percent owner" on paper.

Perhaps the most infamous loophole originated in Minnesota. Passed in 2007, the state's so-called Freedom to Breathe Act contained a clause permitting smoking in theatrical productions. The wording, similar to the clause in St. Louis County's new law, inspired "theater nights" during which pub patrons lit up and called it an avant-garde production. After a month of impromptu performances, the state's health department and attorney general put the kibosh on the practice by threatening the bar owners with fines of up to $10,000.

Altogether, 25 states and all but 17 of the 60 most populous U.S. cities prohibit smoking in public places, including all restaurants and bars. Of the 37 states that have enacted some kind of smoke-free law, only 7 exempt bars. (Click here for more smoking-ban curiosities.)

In Frick's opinion, St. Louis' new laws are among the nation's most permissive. "The vast majority of the country already has a smoke-free law in place that is stronger than what St. Louis city and county plan to enact," he says. "In terms of exemptions, it is definitely behind the national norm. And the usual phase-in period is 30 to 90 days. A year is almost unheard of."

Barbara Fraser, the St. Louis County Council representative from University City who championed the bill and ballot initiative, says she would have preferred a stronger measure but compromises were necessary in order to muster support.

"It was part of the negotiation in making sure we had the four votes to pass the council," Fraser says. "We actually tried a piece that had no exemptions, and it didn't pass. To me what we have now is a great first step — it's a wonderful step forward for our region."

Steve Stenger, a councilman from Lemay, fought for the exemptions. "We tried to protect what we envision to be a small bar that serves primarily alcohol," says Stenger. "We tried to give them at least some type of shield at least temporarily from the negative aspects of not being able to compete with the neighboring counties [that don't have smoking bans]."

Skeptics contend the small-bar freedoms might end up hurting more businesses than they help.

"Really, if it's a level playing field and everybody is smoke-free, nobody is going to go out of business," Lindsey argues. "But the more they talked, the more un-level the playing field got."

Back at the Cat's Meow on a quiet Tuesday morning, bartender Liz Janowski refills a drink for her sole customer. Janowski remembers a time not so long ago when there was a morning rush. A crowd of brewery workers would arrive at 7 a.m. to unwind from the graveyard shift with a few pints.

"This place would be packed," she recalls. "God, it would be smoky. Still gets that way on Friday nights. By the time I leave here, I have to use my inhaler, a nasal spray, everything. I smoked for 27 years. I guess I still smoke, but not directly."

Ortmann, a nonsmoker, describes how the bar used to give him "smoke headaches" until his family raised the ceiling and installed an exhaust fan that he maintains can clear out the room's haze in minutes. The problem now is busy nights — when the barkeep doesn't have time to flip on the fan, and fumes in the cramped quarters quickly become oppressive.

Because the Cat's Meow is so tiny — Ortmann estimates the entire building falls shy of 1,800 square feet — and serves no food besides potato chips and frozen pizzas, it will almost certainly qualify for an exemption to the city ban.

The "almost" qualifier is necessary because no one is really quite sure how the new law will be implemented, let alone how many places will be exempt.

The bill's sponsor, Ward 28 Alderwoman Lyda Krewson, won't even guess at the number of city bars expected to fall below the 2,000-square-foot threshold. "How many? I don't know," Krewson says. "Not too many. I don't know the number. There's nothing in the city right now that tracks that kind of thing."

Krewson is correct. The City of St. Louis Building Division does not keep records of interior square footage.

Nor does any other department at city hall.

"We have some measurements," offers Pat Pixley, assistant supervisor of the land records department at the City of St. Louis Recorder of Deeds office. "But it wouldn't be the area of the interior, it would only be the property underneath."

That leaves the staff of the City of St. Louis Department of Health, the ban's mandated enforcers, to figure things out. Department director Pamela Walker says the city's fourteen health inspectors and fifteen sanitation inspectors will carry tape measures when they make their annual rounds in 2011.

"There will be some places that are obvious — we're not going to measure every place in the city," Walker says. "But we'll take measurements where we have to. From then on it will be part of the new occupancy-permit process."

Even this system has a hitch. The new law excludes certain areas in bars — leaving owners with wiggle room.

"We'll just give the inspector a bunch of shots when he comes in and then figure out what the ruler says," Ortmann quips. "Someone could take an area and store their boxes or beer or whatever and say, 'This is storage, so you don't have to count this 100 square feet.' There's going to be so many loopholes."

Mark Gray, owner of the Famous Bar, an establishment in south St. Louis that caters to cigar smokers, says he has no outdoor patio and will be out of business if he can't qualify for an exemption.

"I measured, and we're right at about 2,200 square feet," Gray reports. "But really it all depends on who's got the tape measure and the calculator. I have some large party rooms in the back — I could close those off to fudge it a little bit if I have to."

Stories abound of bar owners already scheming to bend the rules.

"I know one guy who was running around with a tape measure trying to find out where he can put up a false wall," says smokers'-rights advocate Bill Hannegan. "He even went down to city hall to get a building permit for it."

There is, however, a catch.

The city's law defines a bar as an establishment "in which the serving of food is only incidental to the consumption of [alcoholic] beverages." A narrow interpretation of that phrase may disqualify any bar — regardless of square footage — that prepares food on-site.

"In my mind that's a bar that serves popcorn or frozen pizza," Krewson says. "They don't have a kitchen."

By sheer coincidence, Walker says, the health department already classifies places this way on their health-inspection reports. "If you just serve beer and pretzels and chips, you're a 'tavern,'" Walker explains. "And if you prepare meals, you're a 'bar and restaurant.'"

According to the health department's online database, St. Louis is home to 155 "taverns." Subtracting those that already prohibit smoking — e.g., bars at sports arenas — it appears that a minimum of 115 establishments will escape the ban. That's about 15 percent of all liquor-license holders. (The St. Louis Excise Division, which oversees liquor licenses, provided documents to Riverfront Times that contain the names of approximately 770 establishments licensed to serve alcohol.)

Walker has not yet decided if the health department's tavern-versus-bar-and-restaurant criterion will decide who gets a free pass. "We'll have to have a conversation about it and make it public and have a discussion before we put the rule in place," she says. "But it might make sense to just draw the line there."

If Krewson's reading of the law wins out, Hannegan says, a legal challenge will be in order. "That's a really big thing — how that's interpreted. If she prevails we'd have to do a lawsuit right away. Why mention that kitchens don't count toward the square footage if the law automatically excludes places with kitchens?"

Owners of neighborhood bars that offer food argue that they represent the very businesses the exemptions are intended to protect.

C.W.'s Lounge on Natural Bridge Avenue in north St. Louis consists of a sit-down soul-food restaurant on one side and a nightclub with an old-fashioned funk-stocked jukebox on the other. The eatery is a favorite of Metro bus drivers, and the club only admits people 30 years and older.

"Eighty percent of my customers smoke," fumes owner C.W. Williams. "If I don't qualify, it'll hurt. Every tavern is already hurting from the economy. Everything is down. It'll have a great big impact on business."

John Ferguson, proprietor of Ferguson's Pub on Mount Pleasant Street in south St. Louis, echoes Williams' sentiments. His bar offers a full menu — including a fried-chicken lunch special that packs the place on Wednesdays — but he fears his business will be crippled by a smoking ban.

"If we're not careful, all our smokers will go down the street to the tavern with smoking," the 73-year-old Ferguson complains. "They're not keeping people from smoking at bars. They're just saying which ones you can smoke at.

"They're just moving the smokers from one place to another."

The signature item on the menu at Krueger's Bar and Grill is called "the Easter Basket." A blend of chili, lettuce, onion, pepperoncini and corn chips, the dish sets itself apart from the more straightforward bar food the joint offers — chicken wings, club sandwich, deep-fried item du jour — not just because of its peculiar name but because it could conceivably cure a hangover and cause a heart attack in the same sitting.

Adam Becker says the kitchen is a key part of his business, helping draw sizable lunch and happy-hour crowds, but that the bar's bread and butter is beer and liquor. Hence his confidence that Krueger's will be eligible for an exemption to St. Louis County's smoking ban.

The law excludes establishments that earn less than 25 percent of their revenue from food sales.

Unlike the city's, the county's exemption does not have a sunset clause. But just like their urban counterparts, county officials don't know how many bars will qualify for the waiver, in large part because bars will be allowed to self-report their 2010 sales figures.

"It's anybody's guess. It could be 20, 70, 200, 400 places," says Terry Talley, manager of the St. Louis County Department of Revenue's licensing department. "I don't know. That's where the problem is: We don't know. How do we know a regular restaurant won't change and say, 'We'll decrease our food sales and apply and get [an exemption]'?"

If they make the grade this year — and pony up the $30 fee for an exemption — the bars will be able to allow smoking in perpetuity. That's a grandfather clause: Any restaurant or bar that opens after December 31, 2010, will by law be smoke-free.

Hannegan, who fought hard to keep the county ban off the November ballot, says he has spoken with several bar owners who plan to take advantage of the honor system. "Any bar can get their food sales down in 2010 and then they can allow smoking indefinitely," says Hannegan. "If you own a bar in St. Louis County, that's a good deal."

"I can't judge whether people are going to be honest or not honest," counters council member Fraser. "If Bill Hannegan has less faith in bar owners than I do, that's his issue. People are honest and they'll comply."

The Department of Revenue already has an idea of which places may need to be audited should they apply for an exemption later this year: Missouri liquor laws require any bar that stays open on Sunday to net at least 50 percent of its revenue from food sales.

Of more than 900 liquor-license holders in St. Louis County in 2009, approximately 100 were bars without Sunday licenses. County officials believe they can safely assume that any bar that held a Sunday license last year could not — or would not — halve its food sales and close its doors on the seventh day of the week in order to sidestep the restrictions.

"We'll send letters to all the places that don't have Sunday licenses, asking them to prove they make more than 75 percent of sales from liquor," says revenue department spokeswoman Martina Price. "The burden of proof will be on them."

The strategy, though, is far from foolproof. According to several bar owners interviewed for this story, it's an open secret that many places currently inflate their food figures so they can stay open an extra day each week. And some non-Sunday bars — including Krueger's — don't keep meticulous records.

"We're at right about 25 percent, so we shouldn't have to manipulate the numbers at all," Becker says. "But we don't have a computer system. We use all handwritten paper receipts. If it came down to it, they'd have to dig through a whole year's worth of receipts."

Jeff Gershman, spokesman for the Independent Restaurant and Tavern Owners Association of Greater St. Louis, says many barmen are so fearful of losing business that they plan to slash food prices in order to qualify for the exemption.

"Jefferson County, Franklin County, St. Charles County — those guys will be able to offer smoking, but bars in St. Louis County will not," Gershman says. "Smokers will travel to places where they can smoke. That's why we suggested the county wait for statewide legislation."

Fraser, in turn, argues that the region needed to lead by example and that the negative economic effects of smoking bans have been overstated. While casinos and several bar owners across the river in Illinois blame that state's smoking ban for a downturn in business, accounts from communities on the Missouri side of the Mississippi that have already enacted smoke-free laws seem to back up Fraser.

Ballwin alderwoman Jane Suozzi says that while business has declined slightly since the community adopted a clean-air ordinance in January 2006, Ballwin is faring better than neighboring communities such as Manchester that have no smoke-free laws.

"You really can't blame any one thing in this economy," says Suozzi, who notes that the sole exemption to her city's law was granted to the local VFW hall. "The sales-tax figures show we're right about where we've been the past few years."

Judy Kekich, communications coordinator for Clayton, the second of the county's 91 municipalities (after Ballwin) to enact a smoking ban of its own accord, says economic considerations were second to public-health concerns.

"When Clayton put theirs in place, the other areas stepped up to the plate," Kekich says of the ordinance that will take effect in July. "That's something we're really proud of. It protects the health of a lot of folks."

Pamela Walker, director of the City of St. Louis' health department, likewise emphasizes the health benefits of smoke-free laws.

"This is the most significant health regulation in the history of the city," says Walker. "It will have an immediate impact on heart attacks. Immediate. The actual number of heart attacks — not the rate, but the number — dropped 17 percent the first year New York City went smoke-free."

Of course, bans can't be beneficial if they aren't enforced. The New York Times recently reported that smoking in New York City is now commonplace at "just about any and every lounge and club with a doorman and a rope" despite the citywide ban adopted in 2003.

The same holds true closer to home. Many bars in southern Illinois openly flout their state's strict clean-air law, which prohibits smoking within fifteen feet of any building that's open to the public. The Belleville News-Democrat reported earlier this month that the St. Clair County Health Department has issued a mere five citations for violating the smoking ban since the law took effect in 2008.

In Illinois the penalty for violating the ban is up to $250 for individuals and $2,500 for business owners who are caught allowing smoking three times in one year. In St. Louis, the city and county will levy fines of $50 for individuals and $100, $250 and $500 for each instance a business owner allows illegal smoking.

Kirkwood's smoking ban, which voters overwhelmingly approved this past November, took effect on January 2, and Mayor Arthur McDonnell says the municipality has been training its police officers to write tickets when they see smokers lighting up indoors. So far, he says, no one has been caught violating the law.

McDonnell says the suburb is using local billboards to trumpet the fact that it's ahead of the area's clean-air curve. "We think it may have an advantage for us," the mayor says. "This is an opportunity to attract people that may have passed up our city's bars and restaurants in the past because they weren't smoke-free."

At the Geyer Inn, a tavern reputed to have been one of Kirkwood's smokiest before the ban, owner Frank Rodman says his "little rinky-dink place" has indeed benefited from the new ordinance. Rodman tells how his walls — cedar planks lined with shelves that are filled with vintage beer cans — would absorb smoke to the point that the room would reek like an ashtray even when no one was there.

"Sometimes the thing you dread the most in life can turn out to be a blessing in disguise," the owner says. "Already there've been people I don't normally see here more than once or twice a month coming in more often.

"Whatever we lose, we'll get back in new customers."

One of the lone barflies at Krueger's on an icy Thursday afternoon, Tony Zivic, sets his cocktail on the bar and pauses to reflect on the issue.

"In a place like this, even if it did become smoke-free, I don't think it would hurt," he says. "The customers are loyal. If you like a bar and you like the company and the people, you'll still go."

About The Author

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles (1)
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.