New Orleans City Council passes smoke-free ordinance banning smoking in bars and casinos


The New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a citywide ban on smoking in bars and casinos. - MICHAEL OCAMPO/FLICKR
  • The New Orleans City Council unanimously passed a citywide ban on smoking in bars and casinos.

In three months, most of New Orleans will be smoke (and vape) free. At today's New Orleans City Council meeting, its members unanimously passed an ordinance from councilmembers LaToya Cantrell and Susan Guidry that prohibits smoking and using electronic cigarettes in bars and casinos citywide.

"We have to change for the better to meet the needs of our people," Cantrell said.

Cantrell announced her intention to introduce a smoke-free ordinance in July 2014. It received the endorsements of Mayor Mitch Landrieu as well as health department director Charlotte Parent and several local and national health organizations. A first draft was introduced in November, and its final draft includes amendments from several other City Council members. In its final form, the smoking ordinance allows smoking only in the following places:

  • existing cigar and hookah bars
  • vape shops
  • outdoor areas (like patios and courtyards) at bars, restaurants and casinos
  • at smoking and vape conventions and Mardi Gras balls

Cigar bars are defined as a bar that has generated 10 percent or more of its annual gross income from cigar sales and humidor rentals. (It also excludes smoking cigarettes.)

Smoking will be prohibited in all bars and casinos (Harraha's and the Fair Grounds gaming area). An amendment was passed removing the 5 feet distance rule, and Bourbon Street also was singled out — smoking there from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue is allowed without any distance requirement on its street and sidewalks. The ordinance goes into effect 90 days after Landrieu signs it.

The ordinance will be enforced by the health department and several city agencies, including NORD and Parks & Parkways, but not the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). The fines for smoking in prohibited areas begin at $50.

Yesterday, at-large councilman Jason Williams introduced an amendment to remove NOPD as an enforcement agency. That amendment was approved. NOPD and the still-in-progress NOLA Patrol will not carry out enforcement of the ordinance. District E Councilman James Gray also objected to a community service requirement for people unable to pay the fine. That amendment also was approved. Rather than mandate seven hours of community service to anyone unable to pay the fine, it will now be left to a judge's discretion.

Enforcement of the ordinance is largely incumbent upon businesses to remind smokers to step outside. Bar owners and managers, under the ordinance, must ask smoking patrons to put out their cigarette.

Williams said removing the NOPD from the picture "makes sure we don’t overburden or add an additional burden on the NOPD for a smoke-free New Orleans."

"It would be poor judgement to take police officers off the street for even a minute (to address smoking)," he said."

"It’s not a great thing if it becomes a tool of oppression for some people in this city," Gray added, suggesting that the ordinance could become an excuse to "stop young black men in the street" simply for smoking.

Though there was unanimous support from the council, District C councilwoman Nadine Ramsey — whose district includes the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny — said that despite her vote supporting New Orleanians' health and well being, "this is a major piece of legislation that will have major impact on the city, and we need to consider what those impacts will be."

Ramsey also attempted to allow smoking in all cigar bars, rather than just exempting ones that are already open. The ordinance grandfathers in those businesses but prohibits new ones from allowing smoking. Williams echoed those concerns.

District D councilman Jared Brossett's vote also came with a promise to determine the economic impact of the ban.

"I don't doubt the science, I believe the health risks are real," he said, adding that he only just received revenue estimates from casinos this morning that he requested at a council committee meeting earlier this month. "The health and welfare of our public is paramount. ... In the end I'm supporting the smoking ordinance because it’s the right thing to do for our citizens.

Logan Gaskill, human resources director at Harrah’s, was once again among several gaming representatives standing firmly opposed to the ban, citing negative impacts not only to the casino's revenue, but its trickle-down effect to its employees and its tax contributions to the state.

"We need to defer this ordinance so we can truly examine the fiscal impact to the city," he said.
"When we talk about NOLA for Life, this is NOLA for life." — District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell

While electronic cigarette supporters convinced council members earlier this month to allow vaping in vape shops so vapers can "taste" their products, they also stood against the ban, which prohibits vaping in the same places where smoking is prohibited. The Louisiana Association of Electronic Cigarette Retailers formed in the wake of the ordinance's introduction, and it stands against health officials they feel are distributing false information about the technology. E-cig supporters feel e-cigs can be a smoking cessation tool and that its vapor is largely harmless.

"The major result of the Council’s vote today is that electronic cigarettes will be mistakenly perceived by the New Orleans community as a public health concern equivalent to smoking tobacco," said Anthony Kolesa in a statement to Gambit. "By enacting an 'anti-smoking' bill which wholly ignores the unique nature of electronic cigarettes, the City not only regulates in the wrong way, but fails to regulate properly. The products remain self-regulated."

Dr. Brian King with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told council members that e-cigs' safety still is in question, and its marketplaces is a "wild, wild West." King said many studies point to formaldehydes, poly carbons and other toxins in e-cig vapor, and e-cigs still contain nicotine and can "be altered to deliver other psychoactive ingredients."

Councilmembers ultimately agreed that the ordinance is a public health measure meant to protect not only patrons but bar and casino staff, including musicians.

"How can we improve New Orleans without diminishing parts of it we hold so dear?" Williams said. "Smoking inside of bars is not at the heart of New Orleans. ... Exposing friends to second hand smoke is not a part of New Orleans culture. ... Musicians being forced to play in smoking bars and getting cancer is not a part of the culture. ... Today we have dealt with smoking in bars, now this council has to turn its attention to the smoking guns in our street."

"When we talk about NOLA for Life," Cantrell said, "This is NOLA for life."

New Orleans isn't the only city taking notice of the upcoming changes. It's the biggest city in Louisiana to enact a citywide smoking ordinance, and it's one of the first in the South. Other cities are contemplating a decision to go smoke-free, and New Orleans could be the test subject they needed. If it can happen here, says Tonia Moore with the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco Free Living, it can happen almost anywhere.

"This is a huge victory," Moore told Gambit. "Montgomery, Alabama, is in the process of doing this. The state of Kentucky, they're watching. They know this is a city where billions of tourists come and partake in the culture and traditions, and they also want to participate in smoke-free and healthy lifestyles."

Jennifer Cofer with the American Lung Association (ALA) says the ordinance will dramatically reduce ER visits from bar patrons and employees, and now with the ordinance's passage without any major changes (like exempting casinos), the ALA will begin working on projections on how many people will likely avoid illness or death from exposure to secondhand smoke.

According to the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Louisiana (which includes the ALA, Ochsner, American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network and several other health organizations), more than 6,500 Louisiana residents die from smoking-related causes each year, amounting to nearly $1.5 billion in health care costs.

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