Smoking likely will be banned in New Orleans bars eventually, and if New Orleans City Councilwomen LaToya Cantrell and Susan Guidry have their way, that day will come sooner rather than later — early in 2015, in fact. Last month, Cantrell presented the first draft of an anti-smoking ordinance that she plans to introduce in the coming months.
Public tobacco use is trending downward in Louisiana, as it is elsewhere, but our state still has one of the nation's highest smoking rates. A recent Gallup poll found 24.7 percent of Louisianans smoke. Annually for the last five years, state lawmakers have killed a proposed statewide smoking ban, but an anti-tobacco movement has taken hold. Alexandria and Monroe are now largely smoke-free, and just two months ago Abbeville adopted a smoke-free ordinance that encompassed some public spaces (including parks) while excluding bars and bingo halls. State universities are now smoke-free, and area universities have followed suit.
New Orleans has been going smoke-free quickly and for the most part organically. Smoking in restaurants was banned in 2007, while bars were left to set their own policies. Many popular bars, including Finn McCool's and Twelve Mile Limit, have chosen to go smoke-free, as have music clubs such as Rock 'n' Bowl, The Maple Leaf and Tipitina's. A change of ownership often brings a new nonsmoking policy, as when The Big Top became The BEATnik and the Bridge Lounge became Barrel Proof. Buffa's Bar split the difference with a nonsmoking music room completely separate from a bar where smoking is allowed.
Nonsmoking advocates argue that if smoke-free workplaces are the right thing for office workers, then bar workers and musicians should have the same right. It's a persuasive argument for banning smoking in most bars (with a few exceptions, listed below), but we think the language in the proposed New Orleans ordinance goes too far.
New Orleans has been going smoke free quickly and for the most part organically.
First, there's the question of distance. While smoking already is prohibited within 25 feet of a government building in Louisiana, the local ordinance would apply the same standard to any business, including bars. That would turn well-intentioned smokers in the French Quarter into lawbreakers if they merely stepped outside to smoke, because many Quarter entrances are less than 50 feet apart. It also would ban smoking in all "public places" and recreational areas. How would that work during large events such as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, French Quarter Fest and Voodoo Music Experience?
The proposed ordinance also defines "smoking" as including "the use of an electronic smoking device which creates an aerosol or vapor." That takes direct aim at e-cigarettes, which produce water vapor and are frequently used by people who are trying to quit smoking. It also makes no allowances for existing businesses such as hookah bars or cigar bars, which are patronized by people who go there precisely to smoke without bothering anyone else. The proposed ban is a draconian step that could put legitimate local businesses out of business quickly.
Cantrell points out, correctly, that several health-related convention groups refuse to patronize cities without a com-prehensive smoking ban. However, the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) has taken no position on the ordinance. Shelley Waguespack, third-generation owner and president of Pat O'Brien's, echoes some bar proprietors who have said smoking policies should be set by individual businesses, not by the city. (Pat O's voluntarily made its piano bar smoke-free several years ago.) "This shouldn't be forced down our throat," Waguespack told Gambit. "I appreciate the councilwoman's energy and passion for this, but as business people we have many other pressing things to worry about."
The City Council likely will have at least one public meeting on the matter. Cantrell aide John Pourciau tells Gambit that a subcommittee hearing is planned for Jan. 7, with a general council hearing later next month. We hope those hearings produce workable compromises that preserve the health rights of the majority in practical, enforceable ways while also accommodating the rights of smokers to gather in defined spaces where no one else is bothered. (Boston, for example, exempts hookah and cigar bars in its own tough smoke-free law, which also bans smoking in all hotel rooms — something Cantrell's ordinance doesn't do.)
Besides letting council members know your opinion, you can find out which places in New Orleans have voluntarily gone smoke-free at www.healthierairforall.org. If you want your favorite establishment to stamp out smoking, let the owners know. They may not need an ordinance to do it — just the weight of customer opinion.