New Orleans smoking ban debate continues at City Hall



Before the New Orleans City Council votes on an ordinance that could ban smoking in bars and casinos citywide, the measure's authors held a "town hall"-style meeting to hear one last round of public comment. The City Council will likely hear from several speakers at the City Council meeting on Thursday, Jan. 22, but tonight's hearing made room for more than two hours of comments from all sides of the issue.

The audience was made up of smoke-free advocates, casino representatives and employees who fear for the worst if smoking is banned in their workplace, business owners who believe they should set their own smoking policies, and a crowd of electronic cigarette users and e-cig business owners who would support the ordinance if it didn't also target them.

It's the latter that could likely make some room for amendments on Jan. 22. At the council's Jan. 7 Community Development Committee meeting, e-cig users and sellers suggested that if cigar and hookah bars are exempt from the ordinance, so should their stores, where customers can "taste" vape products.

"We don't have a problem with the regulation of electronic cigarettes," said Anthony Kolesa, who runs Smoke Cignals, adding that many e-cig supporters would back the measure if it removed them from the picture.

"We’re all fighting against Big Tobacco," Chad Rogers said. "(The smoke-free campaign) is with Big Pharmaceutical. We’re by ourselves."

Harrah's Casino, however, was far from alone. A group of Harrah's employees — from management to table game dealers to housekeepers — spoke against the measure, fearing fewer people through the door, lost to competition in Jefferson Parish or nearby states where smoking is allowed. Several employees said it's their choice to work in the smoking environment. "I know what I signed up for," said Chris Ford.

District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who introduced the ordinance, fired back against one administrative staffer, whose office is not on the floor, asking, "So you can smoke in your office?" (No, was the answer.)

For some bar owners and patrons, however, the ordinance simply oversteps their right to set their own smoke-free policy. Dozens of bars across New Orleans already have banned smoking without legislation, they argued.

"It doesn't make sense to dictate to businesses what they seem to be doing already on their own," said Trey Monaghan of Molly's at the Market and new nonsmoking bar and restaurant Junction.

Adding to the list of musicians who support a smoking ban (which includes Irvin Mayfield, Deacon John Moore, Paul Sanchez and Craig Klein) were statements from Kermit Ruffins, the Pinettes Brass Band and Chubby Carrier as well as Louisiana Red Hot Records. Washboard Chaz, who was a smoker for 35 years and quit 13 years ago, also supports a ban. Bethany Bultman with the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic said if a smoking ban is in place, the "birthplace of American music will no longer be an early grave for those who keep it alive."

Health officials — from Ochsner and LSU systems to the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association, among others — repeated the public health implications of smoking and secondhand smoke, urging the City Council to support a ban in public places like bars and casinos. Sen. David Heitmeier, who has filed several bills to prohibit smoking statewide, also offered his support, as did Sen. Karen Carter Peterson.

"I'm hopeful that next Thursday you get the support you need to make New Orleans and its citizens healthier," she said. "This ordinance is a critical instrument in fighting for healthier air for all of us."

Still to be determined, however, is how the ordinance will realistically be enforced. Among enforcement agencies are the New Orleans Police Department, the health department (and its still-in-progress health officers) and the upcoming NOLA Patrol program (which would just enforce in the French Quarter). If the ordinance puts barroom smokers on the street, residents and businesses fear not only scrutiny from NOPD officers lingering around bars for possible "offenders" but also noise complaints from neighbors — particularly in already heated areas like the Faubourg Marigny, where Mimi's in the Marigny faced ongoing litigation and complaints from neighbors.

"We can all go outside and start smoking, but I don’t want to come back here (for noise violations)," said Matthew Hill. "Stop putting businesses in stressed positions."

The full New Orleans City Council meets 10 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 22.

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