Louisiana legislators prepare to regulate e-cigs

Alex Woodward reports that a smoking ban seems off the table this year, but Baton Rouge is taking a look at electronic cigarettes



Big leather couches, low lighting and a glass of Scotch beg for a cigar. At Winston's Pub & Patio, the Old Metairie staple whose sign features a silhouette of its namesake Prime Minister lighting a fat one, that was the winning combination for many of its customers. On Ash Wednesday, however, the longtime smokers' paradise turned on the no smoking sign — a wooden "smoke free" notice hanging under Winston Churchill's silhouette.

  "There would be six or seven guys, cigars going on — or a couple cigars — that burn for a long time," said the bar's general manager Stephen Joseph. "You would see people walk in and turn around. I thought, 'What do you gain or lose in this?'"

  Joseph said the bar was losing as many potential customers as regulars. Smokers still can smoke at Winston's extended, recently renovated patio area, and Joseph said he plans to add an overhang for rainy days. "[Smokers] are not being exiled. They just walk over a few feet," he said. "Ultimately we made the push to increase business, or at the very least not lose business."

  Winston's is among the slowly growing list of bars and venues in New Orleans where smoking is prohibited. According to the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living (TFL), more than 100 places in New Orleans prohibit smoking. Statewide, several cities and parishes have developed smoke-free policies.

  In 2012, Alexandria banned smoking in bars and gaming facilities, followed by Monroe, West Monroe and all of Ouachita Parish. More than 20 college campuses in Louisiana also have instituted smoking bans.

  "That means local municipalities can enact stronger laws than the state," said Tonia Moore, associate director of TFL. "We'd love for New Orleans to go smoke-free. It won't be easy, but we have a lot of supporters."

  In 2011, TFL made a push to ban smoking in Louisiana bars and casinos with its Let's Be Totally Clear campaign, which featured musicians and bartenders in ads discussing how second-hand smoke is detrimental to the health of workers. Bars are a glaring exception to the rule in the Louisiana Smoke-Free Air Act, which prohibits smoking in most places.

  While the Louisiana Legislature isn't considering any bills this year to ban smoking in bars and casinos, as was attempted in previous sessions, the Senate already approved a bill (and will consider others) concerning the new crop of tobacco "alternatives" — electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, battery-powered devices filled with nicotine cartridges. Senate Bill 12 by state Sen. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, prohibits the sale of e-cigs — which previously were not regulated — to minors. The Senate passed Gallot's measure 37-0 on March 24. The bill now awaits approval in the House Judiciary Committee.

  Among several health-related bills by state Sen. David Heitmeier, D-Algiers, Senate Bill 491 amends the Louisiana Smoke-Free Air Act to add e-cigs to the list of prohibited tobacco products, much like cigarettes are now. That would mean no more "vaping" in restaurants, despite what e-cig commercials say. That bill is pending before the Senate's Health and Welfare Committee, which Heitmeier chairs.

  While smoking rates in Orleans Parish have decreased in recent years, e-cigs are gaining popularity. In 2012, the local smoking rate was 15 percent among men and women, an average decrease of 1.8 percent since 1996, according to a study by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Meanwhile, more than 20 percent of callers to TFL's 1-800-QUIT-NOW hotline in January were using e-cigarettes — compared to October 2013, when only 8.6 percent of callers were using e-cigarettes.

  According to the University of Washington study, there has been an overall decline in smoking, though in Southern and rural areas, the decline rates were smaller than in places like the Northwest. (The report used self-reported data from 4.7 million adults in more than 3,000 counties from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.) Nearly 20 percent of Louisiana adults are smokers, according to the 2011 Tobacco Use Supplement of the Current Popu- lation Survey.

  The e-cig ban came to the Legislature's attention following a parishwide ban in all Beauregard Parish schools. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not currently regulate e-cigs, though it "intends to issue a proposed rule extending FDA's tobacco product authorities" beyond cigarettes and other tobacco products to include e-cigs. (The FDA's attempt to regulate the devices through the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was overruled in January 2010 in federal court, which ruled that the devices should be regulated as a tobacco product.) Maryland, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania adopted laws to prohibit selling e-cigs to minors, and several other states are planning similar legislation.

  TFL's Moore warns that e-cigs are attractive to former smokers, people using e-cigs as a smoking cessation tool and first-time smokers wary of traditional cigarettes.

  "We definitely want people to understand they're not healthy," Moore said, adding that the vapors from the device can lead to "second-hand vaping."

Other bills being considered by state lawmakers aim for narrower, more-likely-to-pass regulations. Heitmeier's Senate Bill 514 proposes banning smoking within 200 feet of public and private elementary and secondary schools. It also orders the state school superintendent to develop rules for signage and gives law enforcement authority to issue a citation for violating the ban, with fines up to $100 for a third offense. House Bill 168 by state Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, prohibits outdoor smoking within 25 feet of state office buildings.

  Heitmeier's bill was approved by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee last week, and Hoffman's bill likewise won approval last week from the House Health and Welfare Committee (of which Hoffman is vice chair). Each measure now awaits floor action in the author's respective chamber. To become law, each bill also must be approved by the other legislative chamber and be signed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

  Every year from 2009 to 2011, then-state Sen. Rob Marionneaux, a Democrat from Grosse Tete, introduced legislation to prohibit smoking in bars and casinos. Each time, the measure failed despite aggressive support from TFL and eleventh-hour changes to exempt casinos from the measure.

  Now TFL is shifting gears to a statewide On The Move campaign with youth programs and other ideas for legislation, including a potential cigarette tax increase.

  Louisiana has the third-lowest cigarette tax in the U.S. at 36 cents per pack. Moore hopes the measure could at least deter smokers where anti-smoking efforts have failed. Jindal, however, is dead-set against any form of tax increase — even one on cigarettes — because he wants to maintain his "tax virginity" when he runs for president.

  For TFL, smoking bans are a public health issue. In the 2013 America's Health Rankings, Louisiana ranked 48th. In smoking, it ranked 46th. "We're still at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to our health," Moore said. "It's time to start looking at Louisiana as somewhere that can be a No. 1."

  For Winston's and other New Orleans bars — including the dozens of businesses that have gone smoke-free in the last few years — a ban on smoking just makes good sense as a business decision. (TFL's directory of smoke-free bars has nearly tripled in size since 2009.)

  Of Winston's nine-person bar staff, two are smokers. Joseph said the smoking staff understands "it's right business-wise," despite personal gripes. He said a longtime regular called him the morning the bar announced the new rule on Facebook and asked, "What the f— are you thinking?" Along with the announcement's 235 Facebook "likes" are several disappointed commenters saying their goodbye to the bar.

  "Cigarette smokers took it real easy. They're used to being kicked out of places by now," he said. "Cigar smokers were let down. This is one of the few places they had."

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