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Perspective: The Missouri State Capitol's come a long way, baby

Perspective: The Missouri State Capitol's come a long way, baby

But it's not smoke-free yet

February 12th, 2017 by Martin Pion, president of Missouri GASP Inc. in Opinion

Some legislators still smoke in their private offices in Missouri's State Capitol, despite every other state government building with private offices being smoke-free since the 1992 Missouri Clean Indoor Air Act (MCIAA) went into effect.

Two January 2017 efforts to end this exemption on health and safety grounds failed on party-line votes. In opposing, Republican Majority Floor Leader, Rep. Mike Cierpiot, stated during House debate:

"I believe the spirit of the Amendment is reasonable and is something we might decide to do. But the proper way to do it, in my opinion, is caucus position."

Currently the rest of the State Capitol is designated as smoke-free, including both the House and Senate chambers. This is a far cry from when I first began lobbying there for a MCIAA as a member of the Missouri Coalition on Smoking and Health. In 1984, the only "NO SMOKING" signs were in the Visitor's Gallery overlooking the House chamber. On May 6th, 1987, I was sitting there during a critical House vote on a proposed MCIAA when legislators opposed to smoke-free air deliberately lit up cigarettes and cigars. For protection, I donned a professional grade safety respirator, caught on camera by Associated Press photographer Dan Howell, who titled his photo "No Smoking Pleas."

Missouri GASP vigorously opposed that year's MCIAA because it contained a tobacco lobby-inspired preemption clause, giving this very weak bill, if approved, precedence over stronger local ordinances. It was fortunately defeated on the very last day of the session. Back then, with Democrats in control, the leadership opposed smoke-free air efforts, perhaps true of today's Republican leadership now that they're in control.

The smoking situation only changed significantly after St. Louis City resident, Ms. Vivian Dietemann, filed a formal complaint in January 1994. Dietemann alleged that smoking prevented her from accessing the State Capitol due to her severe asthma, exacerbated by exposure to secondhand smoke, in violation of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

After extended delays, the House, Senate, and Office of Administration, which jointly control the building, adopted a sweeping smoking policy in December 1994. Mr. David A. Lieb featured it in a January 9th, 1995, AP story titled: "Ash Canned: Lawmakers Set No-Smoking Policy."

The House Smoking Policy, for example, made all public areas smoke-free, but exemptions included building entrances, the members' private lounge adjoining the House floor, and all legislators' private offices.

In January 1995, Missouri GASP filed a formal ADA complaint seeking an entirely smoke-free State Capitol, and requesting a legally-required Self-Evaluation. As part of a lengthy process, surveys were completed in September 1997 by those named in the complaint, Dietemann, Sr. Luella Dames, and Mr. Don Young, overseen by Mr. Ted Wedel, General Counsel, House Research. (Young, a former smoker now needing an electrolarynx to speak, runs Young Choices Inc., discouraging youth smoking.)

Mrs. Helen Jaegers, working for a state Representative, was added to the complaint in January 1998. In April 1996 she had typed a letter to the Chief Clerk describing how State Capitol smoking exacerbated her severe asthma, resulting in frequent hospital trips. Before submitting the letter, an emergency room visit prompted her to handwrite a postscript, concluding:

"I am so ready to wake up from this nightmare."

This four year effort resulted in a February 5, 1999, Memorandum of Agreement between the State Capitol and Missouri GASP. This made more of the building smoke-free, including "all staff offices open to the public" and two designated building entrances, while still exempting legislators' private offices.

Since 1999, the only additional progress was made was in January 2011 following an ADA complaint by Mr. Billy Williams of GASP of Texas on behalf of Ms. Rossie Judd, an asthmatic from Fenton. Following the defeat of a Rules change proposal by Rep. Jeanette Mott-Oxford to make the entire House smoke-free, the House Rules Committee made the Members' Lounge adjoining the House chamber smoke-free. Legislators' offices were again exempted.

The Republican caucus can do the right thing, as Majority Floor Leader Cierpiot has implied, by voting to make the Smoke-Me House the Smoke-Free House.

Martin Pion is the president of Missouri GASP (Group Against Smoking Pollution) Inc. He can be reached at mpion@swbell.net.