It was as close at it gets.
In a 4-3 vote that hinged largely on worries about the health of people who work in bars and restaurants, the Columbia City Council made history early Tuesday morning by banning smoking in bars, restaurants and many other public places.
The new ordinance will take effect Jan. 9, giving business owners and their patrons about 90 days to adjust.
The vote took place about 1 a.m., after more than 60 people offered their views during a 4½-hour public hearing and after the council debated the bill and various amendments for another hour and a half.
In the end, Mayor Darwin Hindman and council members Chris Janku, Bob Hutton and Barbara Hoppe – of the Second, Third and Sixth wards, respectively – tilted the scales in favor of the ordinance. Council members Almeta Crayton, Jim Loveless and Laura Nauser – of the First, Fourth and Fifth wards, respectively – voted against the ordinance.
Janku did, however, push through an amendment that allowed some smoking on restaurant and bar patios, so long as neither patrons nor workers have to navigate smoking sections to access non-smoking areas.
Both the public testimony and the council’s debate centered on a key theme: When do public health concerns trump the rights of private business owners, and those of people engaging in legal behavior?
Hindman, who after the hearing cited “overwhelming evidence” that second-hand smoke is bad for people, said it is smokers who must give some leeway. After all, he said, it is smokers who are engaging in unhealthy activity.
“It’s gonna have to be that somebody’s freedom of choice is going to be affected,” the mayor said.
“Whose freedom should be limited? … I think it really should be the smoker’s freedom that should be limited.”
Siding with the minority, Nauser said the ban represents an intrusion on business owners and the rights of people to make their own choices. She’s been skydiving. She’s been bungee-jumping. And as a child, she said, she never wore a seat belt while riding in a car.
“I quite frankly don’t know how I got this far in life,” Nauser said.
“We have become such a weak society that we want our government to make a choice about everything we do,” she added.
For Hutton, however, the most important issue was worker safety. He didn’t buy arguments from the public that people who don’t want to work in smoky bars and restaurants can simply find jobs elsewhere. Still, he struggled with the decision.
“I truly hope I don’t have regrets over it – over economic impacts – because I don’t want to see anybody hurt over it,” he said.
Crayton acknowledged the evidence that second-hand smoke is harmful. “I really can’t say much about the health stuff,’ she said. But “ … I’m worried about how much the government reaches into your life.”
Testimony from the public ran about 2 to 1 in favor of the ban. The divided stances were predictable.
At the entrance to the Daniel Boone City Building before the hearing, the two main organizations concerned with the smoking ban were trying to catch allies by offering stickers: blue stickers for the Boone County Coalition for Tobacco Concerns and people who supported the ban, red ones for the Boone Liberty Coalition and people those opposed the ban.
By the time Hindman pounded the gavel to end the hearing, more than 60 people had spoken. Forty or so – including several physicians, public-health advocates and MU students – supported the bill.
“This is not an effort to vilify smokers in any way,” said Dean Andersen, co-director of the Boone County Coalition for Tobacco Concerns. “This is a health issue, not a moral issue.”
Recounting data about the negative effects of secondhand smoke, Andersen argued that the council’s role was clear. “Protecting the health and safety of our community is a primary purpose of local government.”
“Secondhand smoke causes disease and premature death in children and adults who do not smoke... It’s time for local government to do what they are supposed to do, listen to their constituents and protect the health and safety of their community,” Andersen said.
While members of the Boone Liberty Coalition didn’t deny the health issues related to smoking, they argued that businesses and their patrons should be allowed to choose what’s right for themselves.
John Pelzer of the Missouri Restaurant Association said local bans on smoking in public places hurt business. Indeed, owners of several local bars and restaurants predicted a big hit on their profits. Pelzer said his association would take a neutral stance on a statewide law that, if crafted properly, might create a more level playing field.
“I urge you to let the state address this,” he told the council.
Missourian reporters Delphine Soulas, Ben Hogan and Carly Romano contributed to this report.