Butt Out!

Will the smoke really clear in local bars and restaurants? Health professionals, advocates, bar owners and restaurateurs debate a smoking ban's chances and merits.



Last month, smokers wanting to light up indoors gained a martyr for their cause. Twelve days after New York City became one of hundreds of cities across America to ban smoking in workplaces, bars, restaurants and other social gathering spots, Manhattan nightclub bouncer Dana Blake was stabbed to death -- allegedly for telling a customer to extinguish his cigarette.

Some New Yorkers have seized on the situation as an extreme example of what can happen when establishments are forced to make customers snuff out their tobacco. Indeed, many people in New York were shocked that such a ban actually took place.

"People were saying, 'There's no way they're going to do it. We're New Yorkers. No one is going to put up with it,'" says Jonathan Petrow, bar manager of the Mexican Radio bar and restaurant in New York City.

Beginning last week, the city of New York now fines establishments who don't comply with the ban, after allowing a 30-day grace period of non-enforcement from the time the law took effect March 30. Petrow, also a musician who plays gigs in bars all over New York, says many places used that month to phase in the ordinance, while others took advantage of it to cater more aggressively to smokers dreading the onset of the ban. "At these hardcore drinking establishments, there's some where I've noticed more ashtrays," he says.

Now, if some doctors, health officials and non-smoking ban advocates have their way, the Big Easy could follow the lead of the Big Apple. On April 30, the Louisiana Senate voted 31-5 to approve Senate Bill 901, sponsored by Sen. Joe Johnson, D-New Orleans, which could possibly open New Orleans up to a ban on indoor smoking.

Many hail the potential action as progress in a state rife with cancer and respiratory illnesses. "When a community goes smoke-free it never goes back," says Al Hannah, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for a Tobacco Free Louisiana. "It's a way of life, and people can't imagine a time of life when they were forced to breathe smoke as a condition of employment."

Others shudder at the thought of what a ban might mean in a city known the world over for its cheerful indulgence of vices. "We were thinking New Orleans would be one of the last bastions of smoking," says Ritchie Shaner, co-owner of Dos Jefes Uptown Cigar Bar. "Everybody wants to get on the train of political correctness, but we want to smoke where we want to smoke. You go to a bar to smoke and drink. Whether it's Pat O'Brien's or the Cigar Bar, you go there to smoke and drink."

Senate Bill 901 would lift a current regulation that forbids local governments from enacting smoking bans that are stricter than those imposed by the state. Supporters call it a "local control" bill. If it passes, Louisiana cities could pass ordinances ranging from stricter regulations governing smoking sections in buildings, to an outright ban on smoking inside public places. (The state currently bans smoking in hospitals, child-care centers and schools.)

"Right now there's language in state law that prohibits communities from making decisions that best fit them," says Jennifer Johnson, spokeswoman for the Louisiana chapter of the American Cancer Society, a partner with other health and anti-tobacco organizations in the Tobacco Free Louisiana coalition.

The proposed measure still faces action on the House side, where a similar bill died two years ago. For New Orleanians, the big question is whether the city would change its smoking laws if the bill were to pass.

"I think there would be a chance it could pass in other parts of the state," says Faubourg Marigny restaurateur Roland Adams, who owns both a non-smoking coffee house and a restaurant that allows smoking. "But in New Orleans there might be a very interesting battle."

Many of the fighters on the battlefield would be the owners of restaurants, bars and other places where people like to smoke.

"Our dog in this hunt is the right of the business owner to not be abridged," says Tom Weatherly, spokesman for the Louisiana Restaurant Association, the most vocal opponent of SB 901. "Because he or she is the one that's got the investment, he or she should have the right to accommodate as many of these patrons as possible and to market their restaurant as being one way or the other -- smoking or non-smoking."

Health advocates argue that few laypeople grasp the dangers of secondhand smoke, also known as passive cigarette smoke or environmental tobacco smoke. "It's very important that people understand that breathing in the exhaust from a burning cigarette in an ashtray is potentially more harmful than if you dragged on it yourself," says Dr. Ben deBoisblanc, a professor of medicine and physiology at the Louisiana State University Health Science Center.

DeBoisblanc explains that 85 percent of environmental smoke is composed of what's known as "sidestream" smoke, and the rest is "mainstream" smoke. "When someone takes a drag on the cigarette, the smoke he or she breathes in is mainstream smoke. But the smoke that is generated while simply holding a burning cigarette is sidestream smoke," he says. "Studies have shown that sidestream smoke is actually more harmful than mainstream smoke because it contains more carcinogens and carbon monoxide than mainstream smoke. ...

"Cigarette smoke contains over 4,000 different chemicals and at least 50 of them have been shown to be carcinogens, cancer-causing agents," says deBoisblanc. "And a lot of the others can cause heart disease, lung disease and other problems."

Research on the effect of environmental smoke on non-smokers who live with smokers has found a multitude of harmful effects, he says, including a greater risk of heart attacks, lung cancer, respiratory illnesses and other health problems.

Though less is known about environmental smoke in the workplace, deBoisblanc says the evidence relating to secondhand smoke in the home "has been extrapolated to the workplace, because people spend as much time at work as at home." Other studies, such as those released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, say environmental smoke causes pneumonia and bronchitis in 375,000 children per year, and leads to about 5,200 middle ear operations and 500,000 doctor visits for asthma in kids annually.

Even brief exposure to secondhand smoke can cause adverse health effects, deBoisblanc says. He cites studies of people who showed changes in heart rate, blood pressure and in their platelets and the endothelium -- the lining of the blood vessels -- after just 30 minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke.

"If an individual had pre-existing heart disease, then theoretically even brief exposure to environmental smoke could set him up for a heart attack," he says. "It just makes good sense to try to reduce environmental tobacco smoke everywhere as much as possible."

Johnson, of the American Cancer Society, says that if SB 901 should pass, the Tobacco Free Louisiana coalition will petition local governments to enact smoking bans -- and has already launched a campaign to do so.

"We're the state with the highest cancer death rate in the nation, so secondhand smoke is definitely a concern to us. It's a public health issue and according to CDC, secondhand smoke kills 53,000 people a year in the United States," Johnson says. "It's no different from government regulations on handling food in restaurants. The air we breathe should be treated no differently."

Don Lobb was among the anti-smoking activists who journeyed to Baton Rouge the day the Senate Health and Welfare Committee voted on SB 901. "The obstacle is going to be in the House, I think, where the tobacco lobby is going to get strong and tough and use all their influence," says Lobb, a retired small-business owner from Covington. "They're going to be tough to beat unless we have something on our side."

That something, he says, is a slate of resolutions approved by local governing bodies across Louisiana -- including one passed unanimously by the New Orleans City Council -- urging the Legislature to approve SB 901. "These resolutions are tremendously helpful," says Lobb, who watched his father die of cancer and now devotes much of his time to trying to prevent the disease in others.

"I hate complacency," he explains. "People think cancer's just a way of life, and I don't know why more people aren't more passionate and adamant about it. Fifteen hundred people die of cancer every day and Louisiana is number one in the U.S. in the rate of cancer deaths.

"These restaurants say they have smoking sections, but the air circulates," Lobb says. "And I'll borrow a line I heard at the Capitol -- it's like having a peeing section in a pool. It doesn't work."

Some restaurant owners, though, say a little technology and planning go a long way. Richard Fiske, owner of the Bombay Club in the French Quarter, installed "Smoke Eater" air filtration devices that he says make a huge difference. "Our town is a heavy smoking town," he says. "I don't think it should be an issue decided by a small group of men and women who are being influenced by lobbyists."

He worries about the logistics of complying with a smoking ban. "It's a tremendous inconvenience for those to who wish to smoke, and it does affect business tremendously and it creates other issues where if you have to go outside to smoke, you're standing in the doorways and you impede traffic of people walking by your restaurant and in and out of your restaurant.

"There are those who are adamant about smoke-free environments, and there are venues out there where they can enjoy smoke-free environments," Fiske says. "I find it very contrary to government interfering and imposing those type of restrictions. I think it's overintervention."

City Councilman Oliver Thomas argues that this is the kind of intervention that could save lives. "You don't want to impose government on the good things," he says with a laugh. "Those things that don't promote healthy living -- let's impose on them.

"The health statistics in Louisiana with cancer, lung cancer and emphysema, are among the highest in the nation," says Thomas, one of the council's more outspoken members on the issue. "If you can create a healthy environment you're going to have a healthy society and the cost of health care goes down. You don't have to be a doctor or scientist to figure that out. The issue isn't really anti-smoker or pro-smoker, this is pro-smoke-free environment."

Thomas says it's too early to discuss what action New Orleans would take, if any. "I would hope that every business, every indoor facility would be smoke free," he says. "But we haven't gotten to that point yet."

Anti-smoking advocates predict that if SB 901 should pass, cities across Louisiana including New Orleans would enact some sort of ban. "Every state that's close to us has local control -- Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia," says Hannah, of the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Louisiana. "In Louisiana we have been frozen out of the process."

Louisiana Restaurant Association spokesman Tom Weatherly calls the ban "a direct attack against restaurants and bars." Hannah counters this argument by citing a Texas Department of Health study that examined the economic impact of restaurants in four Lone Star cities -- Arlington, Austin, Plano and Wichita Falls -- after they passed indoor smoking ordinances. The study concluded that the ordinances caused "no detrimental effect on restaurant sales."

Hannah believes such ordinances would actually benefit restaurants, and ticks off a list of reasons why. "There's easier capacity management; you don't have the issue of one section being full while another is empty. There's no cigarette burns, no having to wash the drapes more often, not as many cleaning issues. For many reasons smoke-free environments are a benefit to restaurants and it brings out new populations: people with respiratory ailments, families."

Weatherly says that with all due respect, Hannah and his ilk need to butt out of their business. "It's ridiculous to compare Texas restaurants to ones in New Orleans and expect there to be a direct correlation. They're completely different, and no one has done an economic impact study in New Orleans," he says.

Tobacco Free Louisiana, Weatherly says, "has a way of politicizing this so they can basically trample the rights of the business owner. They're well-intentioned and good people, and we're not trying to denigrate and doubt what they're doing. Our concern is for the rights of the small business owner who has his life savings invested in his business, and you're basically asking him to upset 30 to 40 percent of his customers off the bat."

In cities with smoking bans, the onus of enforcement is generally on the establishment itself. Many cities, such as New York, impose fines or penalties on businesses that don't comply.

"It would fall on management's hands," says Troy Koehlar, owner of Monaghan's Erin Rose bar in the French Quarter. "I'm sure if there are people from out of town who don't have this going on where they live ... and they light up at the bar, we're going to have to stop them. It's not good business. Absolutely, it would cause hard feelings."

In New York, bar manager Petrow says there are obvious differences in nightlife there since the ban took place. "The thing that is most noticeable is if you go to a busy area with a lot of bars, every place has a throng of five to 15 people standing outside smoking at any given time. There's so much more activity on the street."

The Mercury Lounge, where bouncer Dana Blake was killed, was always known as a laid-back place, according to Petrow. "I talked to someone who worked there who said they never have fights in this place -- it's a music club. But since the smoking ban has happened there's been more fights. People are getting irritable because they can't smoke, and in that place and others where there is no re-entry they have to allow people to leave so they can smoke, and that's a pain in the ass."

Roland Adams, who owns Cafe Marigny and the Marigny Brasserie, doesn't consider himself either a strong proponent or opponent of a smoking ban. But he does speculate about the logistics. "Do they really want to try to enforce a non-smoking ordinance in the city of New Orleans, in the French Quarter?" he asks. "The police can't even keep up with what's going on now, who is going to be the one to enforce this thing? I would think the bar would be liable."

Dos Jefes Cigar Bar owner Ritchie Shaner also wonders about enforcement. "Would they have smoking police?" he says. "I'm not going to enforce it. I sell cigars, and smoking is my livelihood."

In New York, "tobacco bars" such as cigar bars can apply for one of several types of exemptions to the indoor smoking ban. Shaner says he would hope his Uptown club would be similarly grandfathered in. "I mean, they allowed us to open as a cigar bar," he says. "If you don't like smoke, don't come here. It's that simple."

Anti-smoking activists say they're not out to persecute smokers or businesses, but to protect employees and people who are most vulnerable to secondhand smoke -- including children, the elderly, and sick people. "It's really a workplace issue," says Tommy Lotz, executive director of the American Lung Association in Louisiana. "The poor waiters and waitresses and people who work in bars and lounges are the ones who become impacted by secondhand smoke."

Bar owner Koehlar counters that service industry employees can choose to work in a non-smoking establishment. "If you're allergic to smoke, why are you going to work in a place where there's smoking?"

Across the country, smoking bans have been met with mixed reactions. In Helena, Mont. last year, voters passed an indoor smoking ban. Earlier this month, Montana Gov. Judy Martz said she would sign a bill lifting the ban. Martz, a Republican, said the ban was bad for businesses and that both Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature wanted it lifted -- despite a study by the American College of Cardiology showing that during the six months it was enforced, heart attacks in the Helena area dropped by about 60 percent.

If SB 901 doesn't pass this year, the Tobacco Free Louisiana coalition says it's just going to keep returning to the Legislature until it succeeds. "We've been trying to do this for many years," says Lotz, of the American Lung Association. "There's probably more interest in it today because everyone is doing it or has done it -- California, New York, Delaware. This [year] is probably the best chance we feel we've had in getting it passed."

Even the opposition thinks so, too. Weatherly, of the state restaurant association, says that "the difference this year is they have a lot more money behind them and a lot more organization."

Jerry Fine, owner of the Court of Two Sisters in the French Quarter, doesn't think bar and restaurant owners have a fighting chance against such well-organized coalitions. "The guy with the big voice is the one who gets heard a lot, as opposed to the businessman who doesn't have the time to write 16 zillion letters and sit through 16 zillion City Council meetings to voice an opposition," he says.

"I'm a smoker. I was in New York City before they put this ban up and I probably will never go back again in my life if I don't have to."

Those kinds of statements were tossed around frequently in New York when the ban took effect, says Petrow. "There were regulars who were saying 'Well, you'll be seeing a lot less of me.' It affected the first couple weeks of business but we're back to our normal numbers now."

He believes New York is adjusting to the ban after the initial shake-up. "It happened in New York, and you've got some aggressive people in New York who feel very strongly about their rights to do just about anything," Petrow says. "I really have heard people say 'First 9/11, now this.' But people seem to be getting more used to it now."


Add a comment