There's an annual ritual in Baton Rouge, and it goes like this: A bill to ban smoking in bars and casinos is sent to the House and Senate floors and offered up as a sacrifice — practically burned alive on the floor — to ensure that no bill like it shall ever pass. This ritual was performed for several years — until 2014.
This year legislators targeted electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, and banned their sale to minors. One other idea, to include e-cigs in the state's Smoke-Free Air Act (which prohibits smoking in restaurants and other workplaces), was quickly snuffed out.
Despite the political ritual in homage to Big Tobacco, some smoking bans have succeeded. On Aug. 1, a state law (passed in 2013) goes into effect to ensure state college and university campuses have smoke-free policies in place. The University of New Orleans is extending the ban to include all tobacco products (except e-cigs). Private universities have joined in; Tulane's smoke-free campus policy is effective this semester, and Loyola has formed a committee of students, faculty and staff to draft a smoke- and tobacco-free campus policy for fall 2015.
Recent smoking bans — not unlike the ones immolated in Baton Rouge — already are being instituted in several Louisiana cities and parishes. In Alexandria, Monroe, West Monroe and all of Ouachita Parish, smoking is prohibited in bars and near public buildings.
If New Orleans City Council District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell has her way, New Orleans could be next.
Cantrell plans to introduce legislation in November to ban smoking in bars and public buildings in New Orleans. She has the support of Mayor Mitch Landrieu as well as several of her fellow council members.
"We're seeing trends throughout the city that are driven by bar owners themselves," Cantrell told Gambit. "Bars across the city are recognizing the trend [and] the immediate need for New Orleans to be a healthier city. ... They are showing other bar owners that this can be done, to no negative impact to the business, and they're not losing patrons but gaining them."
Cantrell previewed her plan at an April 24 City Council meeting when the City Council recognized smoke-free bars and Bertha Bradley, a nonsmoker who suffers from lung disease and is owner of Bertha's Place bar. "I'm honored and proud to honor ... the bars who have on their own gone smoke-free. It's a movement I champion 100 percent," Cantrell said at the meeting. "The only way to prevent [diseases caused by secondhand smoke] is to become smoke-free."
Landrieu's support for the ordinance as a public health measure is consistent with legislation he helped draft as a member of the state Legislature that funded the creation of the Louisiana Cancer Research Consortium in 2002. The consortium created a partnership with LSU Health Sciences Center, Tulane University Health Sciences Center, Xavier University and Ochsner Health System — as well as the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living (TFL). The campaign also organized this month's statewide Smoke-Free Week, which held a series of events in New Orleans to raise awareness about how smoking and secondhand smoke affect health.
District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry had pledged to bring up the issue in the City Council, though her previous efforts were met with little enthusiasm, she said. Following Cantrell's announcement earlier this month, Guidry said she'll stand behind her.
"I absolutely will support an ordinance to ban smoking in bars," she wrote in an email to Gambit. "I am ecstatic to see that Councilmember Cantrell is taking this on now and stand ready to support her in any way I can. New Orleans is among the few major cities in America that still allow smoking in bars, and I think it's time for us to take this important step toward becoming a healthier city."
District E Councilman James Gray also will support the measure.
"Grown people are free to do what grown people want to do as long as they don't interfere with other people. We have a right to restrict what people do in public spaces," he said in an email to Gambit. "I've had two uncles die from lung cancer. I suspect that my father's early death was greatly due to smoking. It's an issue that I've been concerned about for a long time."
Councilman-At-Large Jason Williams, however, did not say whether he would support Cantrell, indicating he liked the current system of letting bar owners decide. "Though I am a nonsmoker, I think those decisions should be left to the individual business owner," he wrote in an email to Gambit.
Council President Stacy Head, District D council member Jared Brossett and Nadine Ramsey — whose District C covers the bar-heavy French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny — did not respond to Gambit's request for comment. Cantrell, however, told Gambit she anticipates support from a majority of City Council members.
For Smoke-Free Week, Cantrell coordinated with the statewide Healthier Air for All campaign under TFL, which keeps a running list of bars that are going smoke-free on its website. It counts more than 100 bars in the New Orleans area, and the number is climbing. Winston's Pub & Patio — once a haven for cigar smokers — now has "no smoking" signs hanging inside and outside its Old Metairie building. The Uptown music venue Maple Leaf Bar, which has hosted weekly smoke-free nights on Wednesdays and at special events, also will go smoke-free this fall.
"Smoke-Free Week is the beginning of the movement to make New Orleans healthier," Cantrell said. "Every bar owner I've talked to that's not smoke-free has said, 'You know what, we're for it.' From Rock Bottom Lounge on Tchoupitoulas to Silky's [Uptown], I've been in the barrooms. ... We're not trying to hit them off-guard but share with them what the focus is."
Cantrell said the measure intends to protect the health of workers as well as customers. The Louisiana Smoke-Free Air Act was enacted in 2007 and prohibits smoking in most public spaces and work places — including restaurants. According to TFL Associate Director Tonia Moore, Cantrell's legislation will follow a model ordinance from Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, which has helped draft similar legislation across the country.
"We have workers who are not protected, as far as their health and well-being is concerned," Moore told Gambit. "It's the bar and casino workers as well. They're not protected by the state's smoke-free air act."
According to TFL, bar and casino workers are exposed to more than 300 percent higher levels of secondhand smoke than any other occupational or demographic group.
In 2011, Stephen and Pauline Patterson, owners of the Mid-City bar Finn McCool's Irish Pub, conducted a "social experiment" by hosting a smoke-free day, and they've done so off and on since, having smoking and non-smoking days. Smoking, however, is not at all allowed at Treo, the Pattersons' new craft cocktail lounge on Tulane Avenue, which opened with a no-smoking policy. And when the Bridge Lounge in the Lower Garden District closed and reopened recently as a more upscale bar called Barrel Proof, smokers were sent out to the sidewalk.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 23.9 percent of Louisianans are smokers. Wade Duty with the Louisiana Casino Association said that figure for casino customers is "much higher."
Duty said if a citywide ban on smoking also includes prohibiting smoking in casinos, "We'll see an immediate and irrevocable loss of revenue, loss of jobs and loss of tax dollars." Wade said smokers at bars have more flexibility as to venues; if a bar decides to go smoke-free, they can go to any number of bars, or smoke outside, whereas smokers at casinos have fewer options. A ban, he said, could send them outside Orleans Parish to gamble and drink.
"When you have investment, you can't afford latitude," he said.
At least one other state's experience bears out Duty's concern.
A 2009 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis compared the effects of a smoking ban in Illinois on its casino revenue to those of similar markets in other states without a smoking ban. It found that revenues in Illinois declined by more than 20 percent after casinos there went smoke-free. (Cantrell has not said whether she will include casinos in her local legislation.) Moore said TFL anticipates some opposition to Cantrell's measure from tobacco and gaming industries.
Cantrell said she's ready for it. "It's the right thing to do," she said.