TARGET 8: Lawmakers Can Still Smoke in Their Capitol Offices

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JEFFERSON CITY - Public places in Jefferson City went smoke free nearly two years ago, but some very special parts of the state capitol building have yet to follow suit. While the building as a whole requires state employees and visitors to smoke outdoors, elected officials in this building can still light up in their offices.

When you walk down certain hallways you can smell tobacco fumes, which not everyone approves.

"What we do ask is that the capitol building, the people's house be a smoke free public place just like other government buildings are smoke free," said Stan Cowan, an anti-smoking advocate.

Earlier this session, a house amendment moved to the floor to make the building truly smoke-free, but lawmakers backed off and voted to leave the decision up to each party caucus. Minority leader Rep. Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis, said for the House Democrats this was the year for change.

"It's 2013, we just can't do it anymore. It's an embarrassment that the state capitol is the only place in state government where people can smoke," Hummel said.

So, the House Democratic Caucus agreed its lawmakers would no longer smoke in their offices.

"There's no reason that we should be above the law. We should not be special, we should not be better than any other state employee or any visitor to this capitol," Hummel said.

The responsibility to figure out the Republican Caucus' response to smoking in the building fell to the House Accounts Committee. Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst, R-St. Louis, serves as the chair of that committee.

"Our caucus decided on a policy that would request that members respect the health and the visitation of their constituents of visitors and somewhat police themselves," Scharnhorst said.

House Republican leaders sent out a proposal that asked its members to "respect" visitors and put a sign on their door if they wish to smoke, among other suggestions. However, it does not outright ban smoking for Republican lawmakers.

"These are elected people who have the right to administer their office in their own way, I would think that those of our representatives that do smoke their constituents will control what that courtesy is," Scharnhorst said.

So, Republicans did not move to restrict their members from smoking and question whether Democrats are following their own new rules.

"I know several of my good friends on that side of the aisle and smoke a considerable amount of cigarettes," Scharnhorst said.

For Cowan, who worked 33 years for the state health department, a lawmaker's right to smoke isn't a good enough argument to allow it.

"I would say don't the people that work in that offices the people that visit, don't they have the right to breathe air that's not polluted?"

Cowan worked as part of the coalition that pushed for a smoke-free JC, a battle he won two years ago. Now, he's once again fighting for public health.

"Decades of science that second hand smoke is indeed a very real risk to health particularly for cardiovascular health... Smoke doesn't stay in their office, it will infiltrate out," he said.

Scharnhorst argues it's not up to the Republican leaders to make that decision and ban smoking.

"I don't have the power over an elected official, his office is his domain. I don't think I have a right to do that in their office, his constituents do or her's do, that's the way I think it should be handled at this point," he said.

The Republican stance has some lawmakers on that side getting negative feedback from the public.

"I think we have to address the public perception, we're not setting our rules and we're here and working for them," Rep. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said.

"Should my office receive a complaint, we will visit with that member and hopefully come to a resolution," Scharnhorst said.

A proposal to ban smoking house wide later fell to the House Rules Committee, but there it got voted down 8 to 4, with all Republicans voting against it and all Democrats voting for it.

"The dynamic down here is interesting because there's so many more Republicans than Democrats," Rowden said.

"(Smoke) doesn't really care if the lungs belong to a Republican or Democratic, it's going to attack the lungs regardless," Cowan said.

For now, the power to control the quality of the air you breathe at the state capitol still remains in the hands of the smokers and nonsmokers you elected to be there.

Missouri's capitol building is one of 11 capitol buildings in the country that are not smoke-free, according to the American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation. Seven of the eight states bordering Missouri have smoke-free capitol buildings, with the exception being Kentucky.