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St. Louis County’s health department is launching a media campaign costing more than a quarter million dollars aimed at the exemptions currently provided by the county’s smoking ban.  They say they aren’t allowed to lobby for legislation, but concede this sounds a lot like a political campaign.

“It does sound like a political campaign if you’re thinking in a political frame of mind,” Pat Washington of the health department said.  “We don’t think in a political frame of mind.  We don’t think politically about public health.”

There will be billboards and bus stop “wraps” debuting next week, and the radio spots have already hit the airwaves.  Each laments the so-called loopholes that exist in the smoking ban.

“There are 145 exemptions in St. Louis County,” one ad says.  “To me that’s alarming.  Why did we pass the law in the first place?  To protect the employees.”

Pressed on whether or not she’s campaigning, Washington says the department, backed by federal grant money, is just getting the information out there.

“There are still folks in St. Louis county who are not protected from exposure to second hand smoke.  That’s our health education message.”

But owners of small bars in the area who benefit from the exemption aren’t buying it.

“Here they go again!” tavern owner Ken Heimos said of his reaction to hearing the commercials.

Heimos owns the Crossroads Bar on Lindbergh in south county.  He says losing his exemption could cause him to lose his three decade old business.

“I’ll probably lose twenty or thirty percent of  the business and I don’t have the food to pick me up.  So it would be devastating.  It would be enough to maybe not be worth having a business anymore.”

He says it doesn’t help that he’s up against a major advertising budget like the one the county is utilizing for the campaign.

“We can’t outspend ‘em, or out advertise ‘em, or out persuade ‘em.  We can’t do nothing.  We just, whatever happens we’re gonna take the brunt of it, and there ain’t nothing we can do to tell ya the truth.”

He might find allies in the areas casinos.  They are the largest beneficiary of the exemptions and they are mentioned in one of the ads.

“There are so many exemptions, certain casino floors you can smoke on,” one of the commercials says.  “Certain small neighborhood places.  Let’s finish the job of getting second hand smoke out of the workplace.”

Mike Winter of the Missouri Gaming Association says the smoking exemption is a very big deal to the state’s casino operators.

“I think it ranks as a condition of great importance to the industry,” he said by phone.

Casino concerns about losing the exemption are a larger scale version of what small tavern owners worry about.  Winter points to the aftermath of Illinois’ smoking ban, where casinos went smoke free, too.

“It had a significant detrimental impact on the casinos themselves and obviously that translates into the amount of revenue that the casinos are able to raise for the state and their home dock communities.”

He says the casinos will be paying attention to the health department’s campaign, and he doesn’t rule out firing back with ads of their own if they deem it necessary.