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Tobacco Row

A state House committee tacks exemptions onto a bill that could have meant the banning of indoor smoking in New Orleans. Bill sponsor Sen. Jon Johnson calls the compromise bill a good start -- but some critics say it's a sellout.

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Cities and towns in Louisiana will likely be able to pass smoking bans soon, but smokers would still be allowed to light up in places that serve liquor.

Senate Bill 901 would repeal the state law prohibiting local governments from creating anti-smoking ordinances that are stricter than those enacted by the state ("Butt Out," May 6). It passed the state Senate without a hitch, but the House Health and Welfare Committee added an amendment to exempt bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, gaming facilities, tobacco shops and hotel rooms. The amended bill now faces action by the full House, possibly early this week.

Bill sponsor Sen. Jon Johnson, D-New Orleans, says he didn't think the original legislation would have cleared the House. The compromise bill is "not what we wanted, but it's a beginning," says Johnson, who pledged to revisit the bill in future legislative sessions. "It's a compromise that we worked out with the Louisiana Restaurant Association ... because it would have been very difficult to pass it on the House side.

"For the good of the general public," Johnson says, "to get in 60 percent of what we wanted was better than getting possibly nothing."

The trade group for the state restaurant industry -- which had fought the original version of the bill -- is satisfied with the compromise. "It balances the concerns that the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Louisiana had with the rights of the businesspeople to establish policies within our own establishments, which was always a concern for us," says Louisiana Restaurant Association spokesman Tom Weatherly. "So this meets everybody's needs."

Johnson and Weatherly estimate that about 60 percent of Louisiana's restaurants -- which include such facilities as fast-food eateries and workplace cafeterias -- do not serve alcohol and would thus be affected by indoor smoking bans. "I think this will end up being a positive for our industry," Weatherly says. "The trend in food service has been going non-smoking, and being good restaurateurs, Louisiana restaurant owners have kept up with those trends. I think in the long run this compromise will work out on both sides and will still allow the restaurants in Louisiana to do business."

But not everyone agrees that the bill is an acceptable compromise. "I certainly am not going to support it as it stands now," says Brad Welch, chairman of the NoSE (No Smoking Environment) Coalition. Welch says that most public places already have indoor smoking bans, and the exemptions written into the bill represent the places where people are most likely to breathe secondhand smoke. "I don't see it making a huge impact anywhere. I have a concern because when you exempt the bars and restaurants and anyplace that serves liquor, then the other entities are going to feel like they've been singled out. And at the local level, I think it would be hard for the (City) Council to pass any ordinance that would single someone out."

The bill seeks to improve public health by limiting the amount of secondhand smoke inhaled by non-smokers and vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly and sick people. Welch complains that the bill purports to protect public health but excludes those who spend a lot of time in places that serve alcohol, both as employees and patrons.

"They like to call this a compromise, but I can tell you this was a compromise initiated by the tobacco and restaurant industries," Welch says. "I know in New Orleans alone there are 3,000 restaurants and the gaming industry -- how many employees are affected by this? They're singling out these employees and saying they're not worth protection, and I have a real problem with that ethically."

Welch acknowledges that others who pushed for SB 901 might not share his opinion of the new bill. Al Hannah, executive director of the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Louisiana, says he was disappointed in the new version of the bill, but nonetheless believes it will foster some public health benefits.

"There are still significant environments where there is forward progress," Hannah says. "Restaurants that do not have a license to sell alcohol; other places where alcohol is not sold, like shopping malls; and it also allows for local ordinances in workplaces. So these are components that remain on the bill that are valuable.

"Nevertheless, we're disappointed that these amendments were tacked onto the bill. This is about local control, about giving communities the option to protect health in their area, and these exemptions give them a little less control. So we're disappointed."

Hannah echoes Johnson's pledge to revisit the bill and work to remove the added exemptions. "The special interests were able to sway legislators to get these amendments placed on the bill; nevertheless, awareness is increasing -- people are more aware of secondhand smoke. It's a stepping stone."

Johnson has also sponsored a separate bill, SB 869, that would eliminate smoking inside the Louisiana Superdome. The bill has cleared the Senate and faces action by the House Health and Welfare Committee. It has the support of the Superdome's general manager, Doug Thornton, who wrote in a letter to Johnson that even though the Dome has designated smoking areas, people tend to smoke wherever they want -- creating fires around the Dome and adding stress to the security staff. "Smoking is the number one complaint that we receive each year from all our patrons," Thornton wrote. (Thornton could not be reached for comment by press time.)

Johnson says his impetus to sponsor anti-tobacco bills came from the anguish of witnessing his father die from emphysema. "Secondhand smoke is the worst kind of smoke you can breathe, and those of us who don't smoke and don't want to be subjected to secondhand smoke shouldn't have to be," he says.

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