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Smoking or Non-Smoking? Letting the Customers Decide

Alex Woodward on how a Mid-City pub went non-smoking for a day ... and will try it again this week

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To go smoke free or not?"

That simple question, posted June 27 on Finn McCool's Irish Pub's Facebook wall, sparked a debate whether the popular Mid-City neighborhood bar should hang the no smoking sign permanently. The bar did go smoke-free — but only for one day, in what the owners call a "social experiment."

The bar has scheduled another "experiment," this time during its typically super-crowded trivia night July 11. (One of the bar's Facebook respondents wrote, "Pub Quiz Night alone is enough to give me Second Hand emphysema.")

"That's been one of the biggest complaints over the years — that it's smoky — but it's never really hurt business," says Finn's owner Stephen Patterson. "We're not really looking at it from a business perspective but from our customers' concerns, from the general dialogue between everybody."

This year, legislators in Baton Rouge once again introduced a potential ban on smoking in bars and casinos in Louisiana, an almost-annual legislative ritual that just as often is butted out. This year the Louisiana Senate knocked down the measure with a 15-22 vote, despite the Senate Health & Welfare Committee's approval and all signs pointing to a "yes" vote. Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Grosse Tete, wrote the bil and pushed a similar bill last year, saying, "How many more studies do we need before we do the right thing and make bars and casinos in Louisiana smoke-free?"

The Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco Free Living's Let's Be Totally Clear initiative has pursued an aggressive ad campaign, calling for bar and casino employees' rights to clean air and pointing to health studies showing the ill effects of barroom smoke. It argued that bars, casinos and other smoking venues are workplaces like any other where smoking is typically prohibited.

With legislation on the table earlier this year, other bars were bracing for the worst — having to force their smoking patrons out the door. Others adapted preemptively. In 2010 and 2011, Let's Be Totally Clear has collected a growing list of smoke-free bars, with large and popular joints like d.b.a., Maison and Tipitina's going nonsmoking. The campaign continues to sponsor nights of music and music festivals (like Foburg in the Faubourg Marigny), with venues pledging to go smoke-free for those events. Those that made the smoke-free switch did not necessarily throw their support behind legislation — Robert LeBlanc of Republic New Orleans, Capdeville, LePhare and loa, for example, says bar and club owners should have the right to decide the rules of their business, though LeBlanc prohibits smoking in all his venues.

The bill was defeated in June. Now bars are deciding their smoking policies, free of interference from lawmakers.

Patterson and his wife Pauline, the owners of Finn McCool's, came up with the idea: their "social experiment" asked customers to keep smoking outside while the bar went smoke-free from its opening hours to close, for just one day.

The crowd that afternoon on June 26 was thin — kickball players trickled in, regulars surrounded the bar and the Boo Koo BBQ kitchen was open. But gone was the smoke, save the lingering smell from the night before. The Pattersons, both nonsmokers, say sales were normal and the bar's Facebook wall filled with messages of thanks.

The Pattersons' inbox, however, was filled with less positive messages. Many customers, including regulars and nonsmokers, boycotted the day (though the Pattersons said the cash register saw no difference than a typical day at the bar). Responses to the "smoke-free or not?" question, they say, were split down the middle.

But they also say many of their smoking customers liked the idea of a ban. "Ninety percent of people are in the middle — you get 5-percent extremes on one end that want to ban smoking and think all smokers should be drawn, strung and quartered," Patterson says. "Then you get the people on the other end who say, 'If you do this, it's like an anti-human rights thing.' The overwhelming majority is in the middle and saying whatever will be will be. Smoking is legal — they expect there's going to be smoking in a pub."

The Pattersons say business at Irish pubs took a significant hit in places like like New York, where smoking was banned in 2003, and in Ireland, where smoking was banned in 2004.

"We're listening to our customers that come here all the time," Patterson says. "We're not looking to get a new set of customers, and we're not looking to change the customers we already have. It's just something that's come up."

Cassandra Contreras, coordinator for the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living, says the experiment is a "great idea." "They're being proactive, but they're being cautious," she says. "They have concerns, but they're taking the steps to at least try it out."

Other neighborhoods, she says, are trying similar experiments — in Uptown, Grit's Bar goes smoke-free from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays, and Phillip's Restaurant and Bar hosts a Smoke-Free Friday the first week of every month. "Neighborhoods are reaching out to the campaign, and talking to their bars," she says. Finn's neighbors — like 12 Mile Limit, Pal's Lounge, Mid-City Yacht Club and The Bulldog — remain smoke-friendly, for now.

Smokers Jane Molinary and Ryan Platner, sitting at the bar at Finn's for a New York Yankees game, say they wouldn't mind a smoke-free bar, but both see there's room for a compromise — splitting the bar into halves: smoke-free and smoke-friendly. Others wouldn't mind the new rules — a group of smokers around a pub table wouldn't mind walking outside for a change. Finn's customers at the bar and on Facebook argue there's more to the Mid-City destination than smoking.

Of the bar's eight employees, two are smokers. The "social experiment" had neither a positive nor a negative effect on their tip buckets, but the bartenders — employees the Let's Be Totally Clear campaign aims to protect — are split: They say a smoke-free bar would be nice, even for smokers, but what about their customers, especially the late-night clientele, forced to sit outside on Banks Street, or the chain-smoking video poker players who would have to walk outside repeatedly — which could become a safety issue late at night. These are the questions many bars considering a smoke-free space will have to ponder as long as bar-smoke legislation continues to fail in the state.

"I guess we're trying it bit by bit," Patterson says. "Our next step might be to do a regular day every week — every Sunday in August, or something like that. If that's what people want that's what we'll provide for them."

While Finn's continues its "social experiments," the social network smoking debate continues. Compare one Facebook page, "New Orleans smoking ban supporters should be deported to Utah" (with only 18 "likes") to "New Orleans Needs More Non-Smoking Live Music Venues!," with 241. One Finn's commenter wrote, "If y'all go smoke-free, I'll do your advertisements for free for a year."

The Pattersons largely stayed out of the "To go smoke free or not?" thread, preferring to see what customers told them, but Pauline chimed in with the bar's take: "I'm a nonsmoker but I don't believe I have a right to tell people not to smoke.

" ... I don't think smoking should be legislated ... it is a personal right. I have never and will never vote for it to be banned. ... The decision we make will obviously piss off half of you ... as the camp is divided. I wish we could all just get along. ... Whatever decision we make, we will take on board what you've all said and try to accommodate everyone as best we can."

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