The streets are empty in the French Quarter near Esplanade Avenue. But inside Cosimo's Bar on Burgundy Street, more than two dozen people are at the bar or at tables along the wall. Nobody is smoking tonight, but a thin, stale smell of smoke lingers in the air and sticks to your clothes — the kind of smell you can't really get out without a hot shower. That odor soon will be the last thing left of cigarettes and cigars when a smoking (and vaping) ban hits New Orleans bars and casinos this month.
In January, Cosimo's owner Ray Hummel pleaded with Mayor Mitch Landrieu to veto the smoke-free measure, which had passed the New Orleans City Council. Hummel estimates 80 to 90 percent of his customers are smokers, and if Cosimo's loses 20 percent in sales, he'll be out of business. His plea, posted on Facebook, went viral.
"This is not a matter of smoking or non-smoking," Hummel wrote. "This is a matter of CHOICE. Adult civil liberties CHOICE."
Landrieu didn't see it that way. On Jan. 30, surrounded by more than a dozen supporters at his desk in City Hall, he signed the smoke-free ordinance. The law goes into effect April 22.
Bar owners, bartenders, smokers and their allies say the measure will be a game changer for New Orleans nightlife and culture. New Orleans is a place to drink and smoke and carry on, they say, and if you can't do it here, where can you?
A few blocks from Cosimo's is Buffa's Lounge & Restaurant, which allows smoking in its front bar but prohibits smoking in a back bar where there are tables, chairs and a stage that often hosts live music. Owner Chuck Rogers made the change to the back bar so Buffa's would be able to accommodate smokers and nonsmokers — but on April 22, both rooms will have to be smoke-free.
"It's something every bar in New Orleans is going to have to do," Rogers said. "We're in the same boat as any other bar. It was easy enough before the smoking ban. ... We have the best of both worlds. We have that unique ability to do that. A lot of places don't. Now that the city is making it mandatory... well, people will have to step out."
Debate over the smoking ban began as soon as District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell announced her intent to bring up the measure last July. Businesses opposed to the measure formed the Freedom to Choose Coalition, and smoking ban opponents argued businesses should be able to decide whether they go smoke-free, pointing to the dozens of bars in the New Orleans area that have made the switch voluntarily. Even some owners of smoke-free bars said the city shouldn't have a monopoly on every bar's smoking policy.
"This shouldn't be forced down our throat," Pat O'Brien's owner Shelly Waguespack told Gambit. "I appreciate the councilwoman's energy and passion for this, but as businesspeople we have many other pressing things to worry about."
Those "other things" also have become sticking points in the smoking ban debate. With smokers and their friends congregating on the sidewalk, bar owners fear their establishments could suddenly become "nuisance" bars if the neighbors decide the people outside are making too much noise.
"Are there going to be more people on the sidewalk smoking? Absolutely," Rogers said. "Is it going to be a problem? I hope not. We'll remind them it's a residential area and to keep the noise down, but we've always done that. I don't see it as a big change. I think there'll be more people outside at any given time, especially when it gets really busy."
Smoke-free proponents stand by the ordinance, pointing to the undeniable public health benefits of eliminating smoke in public areas; in a city with so many employed in the service industry, one of the main arguments for the law was that servers, bartenders, musicians and the like shouldn't be forced to choose between their jobs or their health. On April 9, the City Council passed a few tweaks to the ordinance to clarify some of its language, finally completing the measure less than two weeks before it was set to take effect. In a statement, the Smoke-Free NOLA Coalition (a campaign made up of statewide and national health agencies and nonsmoking advocates) applauded the council's victory.
Harrah's New Orleans, however, still thinks it has a chance to change the city's position. Last month, the casino began a last-minute push for a compromise to avert what it says could be a revenue disaster — a March 18 statement from casino officials said banning smoking inside the gambling palace would jeopardize between $1.8 and $3.6 million in public revenue to benefit education and police and fire departments. At least for now, though, the mighty Harrah's will become as smoke-free as your locally owned corner bar.
Now the campaign that ushered in the New Orleans ban is shifting focus to the Louisiana Legislature, where several smoking bills are on the agenda for this year's legislative session.
The Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living has called for raising the state's tobacco tax by $1.18 to $1.54 per pack. (Louisiana's current 36-cent-per-pack tax is one of the nation's lowest.) The campaign says a tax hike will not only bring in more revenue to ease the state's budget woes (see cover story, p. 15), but it will save thousands of lives and billions of dollars in health care costs.
State Reps. Austin Badon and Helena Moreno, both New Orleans Democrats, filed bills to get the ball rolling. Moreno's gives a parish (aka New Orleans) the authority to put a tax hike to a citywide vote, which is now forbidden under state law, while Badon's bill would set the statewide tax increase.
Under the new law, bars must hang light blue signs provided by the city with the international "no smoking" sign with the words "no smoking or vaping" as well as the city's smoke-free website (www.nola.gov/smokefree) and 311 number. People can file a complaint form on the website or by calling 311 or (877) 286-6431. Complaints also can be submitted anonymously — and time-stamped photographs of someone caught in the act are welcomed. Operators will be available to take calls from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, but complainants will have to leave a message on evenings and weekends.
Within five days of receiving the complaint, the health department will call or email the complainant. Following a second complaint, department officers also will conduct a site visit and "provide educational materials and encourage compliance" to the staff.
But the ordinance is largely dependent on bar staff for enforcement. Bartenders will be on the front line of telling would-be smokers to take it outside. The New Orleans Health Department is responsible for managing complaints and issuing fines, but bar owners and managers are required "to direct any person who is smoking or vaping in an area where smoking or vaping is prohibited to extinguish or turn off the product," according to the city's enforcement outline. "If the person does not stop such use, the owner, manager, operator or employer is directed, if applicable, to refuse service and to immediately ask the person to leave the premises."
"It just gets under my skin," said Dave Clements, who owns Snake and Jake's Christmas Club Lounge — a small, smoky dive plunked in a residential block of Oak Street in Uptown. "I'm pissed off, nervous, unsure — New Orleans has a reputation as being an 'anything goes' city, which I think is part of the allure. It seemed like it was already going in a [smoke-free] direction already."
Clements also owns Circle Bar in the Warehouse District, which he voluntarily turned smoke-free three years ago. Customers there can step outside and smoke on the sidewalks around Lee Circle, hardly a residential neighborhood.
Snake and Jake's, however, is a different story.
"I have nowhere to tell people to go outside to smoke," Clements said. "People tell me, 'It's no big deal. They can just go outside.' My bar gets busy from 2 in the morning until 7 or 8 in the morning, and I'm in a residential neighborhood. Even in the backyard, there are houses that butt right up there. It might be fine for Carrollton Station, which has a back patio. For me, it's going to be a real problem."
"The locals, they're going to respect our neighbors," Rogers said. "When we have tourists in town ... those locals are going to remind people, if they get a little bit loud, to keep it down. They'll police themselves quite a bit. If that doesn't happen, we'll take steps to make sure people are aware."
Bars labeled a "nuisance" are subject to heavy fines and penalties from the city's Alcohol Beverage Control Board, and the Landrieu administration has cracked down on them several times during the mayor's two terms in office. A 2012 press release from the city boasted that while only 32 violations had been prosecuted in 2009, "due to a successful commitment to better enforce nuisance establishments, 287 prosecutions have occurred since the beginning of 2011."
"This is about quality of life," Landrieu said at the time. "A huge part of this improvement comes from enforcing the laws and rules that we already have in place to protect our citizens and make our neighborhoods safer."
"I'm really concerned people are going to call up and complain when five, 10, 15 people are in the front smoking and talking," Clements said. "I don't know what they expect us to do."