(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) A local council member vows to walk away from his fight to have the St. Jo Frontier Casino converted to 100% smoke-free.
Following another failed attempt Monday, St. Joseph Councilman P.J. Kovac said he was done.
“I’m not going to continue to beat a dead horse,” Kovac said. “If you don’t have the votes, then that’s it.”
Kovac proposed a ban back in November but tabled the second proposal before it was voted on by the Council. A work session was called for Monday to discuss the issue once again. But failed after a consensus vote showed five council members opposed it.
Kovac said he was not surprised by Monday’s vote.
“This is what happened last time. The council has decided to put revenues over the people,” he said. “One person called me and said he used to go to the bars and smoke and quit. He hadn’t been to the Casino in years, walked in there and about died.”
Representatives for the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association spoke at the session in favor of Kovac’s proposal, highlighting how dangerous exposure to secondhand smoke is for casino employees and customers.
“Having a non-smoking section in a restaurant or bar or casino is like having a peeing section in a pool,” said Maura Gray of the Heart Association.
Public health concerns spurred advocates into action to ban smoking in indoor public places back in 2014. St. Joseph residents voted in favor of the citywide ban which carved out an exception for the casino.
Another public health advocate, Jamie Baker fielded the Council’s questions about why the casino was granted an exception. Baker, a community policy specialist with Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services, provides assistance to community coalitions pushing for smoke-free cities. She was part of the 2014 push to get the measure passed and explained that the casino exception was strategic.
“There was no way that the Coalition could have fought any sort of campaign against a Casino,” Baker said “It was a very, very hard decision but it was a decision that was made from the Coalition to try to get 95 percent of our workforce to be protected from second-hand smoke.”
Councilman Russell Moore said he viewed the exception as a mistake but one that couldn’t be corrected by a council ordinance. It shouldn’t have happened but it did and I’m not sure you can take a second bite at the apple, Moore said.
Many of the council members remarked that because voters approved the smoking ban with the exception, it would not be fair to enact an ordinance overriding that vote.
“We would have to go to the vote of the people,” Mayor Bill McMurray said. “I wouldn’t do it at the council level.”
During an informal vote at the close of the meeting, McMurray and Councilman Madison Davis both abstained from the vote because Kovac hadn’t presented a specific ballot measure or language. Council members Kent O’Dell, Marty Novak, Gary Roach, Brenda Blessing, and Moore voted against moving forward on the ban. Councilman Brian Myers was absent and Kovac was the sole vote in favor.
The resulting vote was welcome news for St. Jo Frontier Casino officials. Vice President and General Manager of the casino, Michael Tramburelli, spoke out against a casino smoking ban at the work session. He argued that a quick glance at the local market offered a good reason to continue to allow smoking in the casino.
“Kansas City allows smoking. White Cloud allows smoking. That’s in our jurisdiction,” Tramburelli said. “It’s very simple that we are going to be at a competitive disadvantage.”
Association representatives argued that while the local market did allow smoking, many casinos around the country have continued to make money after converting to smoke-free spaces.
An argument Kovac found persuasive but others didn’t.
“There are 200 casinos that went smoking during the pandemic and have stayed no smoking when the regulations went off and they are doing fine,” Kovac said. “I just think they are worried about the revenue and they don't care who dies from it.”