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Smoke-Filled Rooms 

The state legislature is poised to once again take up the issue of smoking in Louisiana bars. Will 2011 be the year of butts-out at your local watering hole?

click to enlarge Ritchie Shaner II (left) and Shawn Stallard own Dos Jefes Uptown Cigar Bar, where the humidor is a big part of the business. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Ritchie Shaner II (left) and Shawn Stallard own Dos Jefes Uptown Cigar Bar, where the humidor is a big part of the business.

In the earliest days of the Bayou State's politics — circa late 1700s — the Choctaw and Chicksaw tribes grew a specialized tobacco called perique for their own cultural and economic needs. Perique is still harvested today in St. James Parish and has cultivated a fan base for its supposedly complex flavor in blended pipe tobaccos. Only a few dozen acres are being farmed these days. But in 1922, there were some 1,000 acres of perique growing around the area of Grand Point. That was the beginning of the Golden Age of Smoking. It's also around the time state government got a whiff of the policy potential of tobacco. In 1926, the Louisiana Legislature passed its first-ever tax on cigarettes — a penny for every dime's worth of price on a pack. Today the state excise tax is the country's fourth-lowest (just behind Virginia, Missouri and South Carolina).

Whether it's Gov. Bobby Jindal's chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, spitting chew in a cup just off the House floor (the lower chamber subsequently adopted its own internal ban) or campaign donations spread around Baton Rouge by cigarette manufacturers, tobacco has always had a role in modern Louisiana politics. According to the Louisiana Tobacco Control Program, more than 734,000 Louisianans smoke cigarettes and one out of every 10 pregnant women continues to smoke while gestating. Louisiana has the second highest rate of all cancers in the nation, and the state Department of Health and Hospitals has posted the following as "fact" on its website: "Even if it doesn't kill, secondhand smoke can cause all types of illnesses, including lung cancer, heart disease, nasal sinus cancer, respiratory disease, bronchitis, middle ear infections, asthma and pneumonia." Then there's all the stuff they print on cigarette packs — warnings that will become more explicit (and gory) next year when the U.S. Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act goes into effect. (Soon to be free with every pack: color photos of mouth cancers and tracheotomies.)

Unlike several other countries (including Canada), the U.S. has never established a nationwide smoking policy, preferring to leave the issue to states and municipalities. The result has been a patchwork of laws. In 2007, smoking was banned in Louisiana restaurants, though it remained legal in bars. In 2009, the legislature seemed poised to ban the practice in bars as well — but a late addition of casinos into the bill seemed to be the poison pill that convinced legislators to vote no, and the whole ban was shelved. A complete ban was approved by the state Senate last year, but later failed to gain traction during a hearing before the House Health and Welfare Committee (HWC).

Just this week, the issue of smoking in casinos was back in court. On March 9, the mother of the late Maceo Bevrotte Jr., a former card dealer at Harrah's New Orleans, filed a federal lawsuit against Harrah's owner Caesars Entertainment Corp., claiming her son's cancer was due to prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke in the workplace. The suit asked the judge to certify the lawsuit as a class action suit, meaning 1,000 nonsmoking Harrah's employees could become plaintiffs. As Gambit went to press, Caesars Entertainment had no comment.

When lawmakers convene in Baton Rouge on April 25, the usual suspects will be lined up for another political battle over smoking in bars and casinos, which are the last bastions for tobacco consumers under Louisiana's Smoke-Free Air Act. This year, in anticipation of a rematch, sources say bars and casinos are already working on various marketing campaigns. The anti-tobacco forces are as well; on March 19, the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living (TFL), which is funded by a 2002 excise tax on cigarettes, will hold its fourth annual Youth Summit at Southern University in Baton Rouge, where students will discuss what the TFL calls "tobacco-related local policy change."

State Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Grosse Tete, says, "There will be a bill filed for consideration this year," saying he isn't ready "to disclose the details of the bill at this time." Marionneaux, a term-limited lawmaker prepping a run for Iberville Parish sheriff, grabbed headlines statewide last year for pushing legislation to ban smoking in bars and casinos. How this legislation will play in this year's climate, where "lower taxes, less government" is the prevailing mantra, has yet to be seen; last year, Marionneaux, a gifted trial lawyer, framed the debate as nonsmoking David versus Big Tobacco Goliath. "How many more studies do we need before we do the right thing and make bars and casinos in Louisiana smoke-free?" Marionneaux asked at the time. "I hope that my colleagues in the House listen to the facts and to the voice of the nonsmoking majority in our state and do their part to protect the health and well-being of thousands of hard-working Louisianans."

In May 2010, after passing the Senate by a vote of 23-12, Marionneaux's drive was dealt a fatal blow when the House Health and Welfare Committee rejected his bill by a vote of 8-4. No big surprise, really; health aside, the HWC has a reputation for sacrificing just about any bill that might be unhealthy for the tobacco industry. In 2009 and 2010, members of the HWC drew at least $18,430 from tobacco companies, related subsidiaries and connected lobbying firms, according to the Louisiana Ethics Administration.

click to enlarge Owner Max Chesney allows smoking at the Bridge Lounge, and is a smoker himself — but says he isn't opposed to a smoking ban. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Owner Max Chesney allows smoking at the Bridge Lounge, and is a smoker himself — but says he isn't opposed to a smoking ban.

Leading the way in tobacco contributions: HWC Chairwoman Kay Katz, R-Monroe, with $4,150. She voted against Marionneaux's proposed ban last year, along with Reps. Richie Burford, R-Stonewall, $1,000; Jean Doerge, D-Minden, $1,274; Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, $1,500; John LaBruzzo, R-Metairie, $2,250; Bernard LeBas, D-Ville Platte, $579; Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs, $1,750; and Thomas Willmott, R-Kenner, $1,427. But practically everyone on the committee has tobacco-related loot in their campaign kitties. Voting for Marionneaux's ban were Reps. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, who received $750 in donations; Walker Hines of New Orleans, then a Democrat but now a Republican, $1,750; Rickey Nowlin, R-Natchitoches, $1,250; and J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, $750.

If the push for a complete ban falls short again, anti-smoking advocates will probably have another policy horse to follow during this year's regular session, which is dedicated chiefly to fiscal issues. Stewart Gordon, president of the Louisiana chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told the Baton Rouge Press Club recently that his organization is actively supporting increasing taxes on cigarettes: "We do support a tobacco tax," Stewart told the press club. With the state facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall, the idea is sure to stimulate more than a few lawmakers. New York state, facing many of the same deficit problems as Louisiana, raised statewide cigarette taxes to $4.35 per pack in June 2010, on top of a $1.50 municipal tax (putting the price of a pack of cigs in Manhattan between $12 and $15).

Taxwise, Louisiana smokers have it good. Go buy a pack of butts in Mandeville or Monroe today and you'll pay 36 cents per pack in state taxes, well below New York and well below the national average of $1. In 2009, the last time the Louisiana Legislature conducted a fiscal session, the HWC shot down a proposed tax hike of $1, which would have created a new state tax of $1.36 per pack and brought the price of a pack of smokes closer to the national average.

What the stats don't cover, though, and what no one can predict right now, is what kind of fate such anti-smoking bills have when faced by a governor who refuses to pass taxes — no matter the cause and effect — and a legislature that is largely up for re-election later this fall. There's also no way to tell if lawmakers are actively collecting money from Big Tobacco prior to the session's start, since the next reporting period is still several months away.

No one is arguing the health issues related to smoking any more. Economics, though, are still up for debate. If it becomes illegal to light up in Louisiana bars, both smokers'-rights groups and the clear-the-air groups come armed with their own statistics as to the financial impact. Not surprisingly, they range from hospitality-industry calamity (smokers will start drinking at home!) to an increase in revenues (nonsmokers who may have avoided smoky taverns will become regular barflies!). Add in the public health costs — both immediate and years down the line — and you've got confusion as well as contention.

At Dos Jefes Uptown Cigar Bar on Tchoupitoulas Street, the bar's perpetual cloud of smoke is what brings in business. During each legislative session in Baton Rouge, when lawmakers thumb through potential smoke-killing legislation, Dos Jefes owner Ritchie Shaner pins up flyers and presses representatives to shoot them down. "You don't just drink Cognac. You drink Cognac with a freakin' cigar. It's as simple as that," he says.

Cigar sales are a big chunk of Dos Jefes' business — a smoking ban would eliminate those sales, Shaner says. But for venues that aren't selling cigars, the proposition of a smoking ban gets hazier: How do you keep your smoking and nonsmoking customers happy, and how do you attract customers who would prefer to avoid smelling like an ashtray?

click to enlarge Robert LeBlanc took his nightclub, Republic, smoke-free in 2007. LeBlanc says he's happy to talk to other club owners about the benefits, but is hesitant about a ban, preferring bar owners be allowed to make their own choices. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Robert LeBlanc took his nightclub, Republic, smoke-free in 2007. LeBlanc says he's happy to talk to other club owners about the benefits, but is hesitant about a ban, preferring bar owners be allowed to make their own choices.

The TFL's Let's Be Totally Clear campaign has gathered steam via viral support through Facebook and Twitter, reaching out to get smoke-free venues on the map — and to get smoke-friendly venues to make the switch. The campaign also has a more public profile — its campaigners are local musicians (Chubby Carrier, Deacon John Moore) and bartenders, featured on high-rise billboards throughout the city.

The campaign supports "100 percent smoke-free air" to protect all employees. "We don't think there are any second-class citizens in Louisiana," says TFL's New Orleans coordinator Cassandra Contreras, who argues that bars fearing a harsh economic impact would feel a neutral one at worst. Contreras says TFL's biggest concern is the health of the employees (including musicians) and patrons constantly surrounded by cigarette smoke. According to Contreras, employees in smoke-filled environments are 17 percent more likely to develop heart disease, lung cancer and emphysema than any in other workplaces. "Any level of secondhand smoke, any exposure, can lead to respiratory infection and other health problems," she says. "There is no safe level of exposure in secondhand smoke."

The campaign frequently partners with music venues to host a night of smoke-free music and events — and some of those venues, including d.b.a. and Tipitina's, have made the switch to prohibit smoking in their clubs. Let's Be Totally Clear now lists more than 30 New Orleans bars and venues in its smoke-free directory, from AllWays Lounge on St. Claude Avenue, to Chickie Wah Wah in Mid-City, to Maison on Frenchmen Street and Cure on Freret Street. This year, the directory added both d.b.a. and the bar at the Columns Hotel to its list of smoking-prohibited venues. Contreras says the number of smoke-free clubs in the city has doubled since 2009.

Republic made the switch in spring 2007, more than a year after it opened, and offers a smoking patio adjacent to the club's main floor. Owner Robert LeBlanc's other ventures like Capdeville, loa and LePhare also prohibit smoking. LeBlanc says the venues went smoke-free to protect employees, who LeBlanc says were formerly surrounded by "heavy, heavy smoke clouds," though he admits he was "tepid" about the decision at the beginning.

"We have a pretty young workforce, so it's not like we saw a lot of ill effects," he says. "It's just one of those things you just kind of see in the future — it's not going to end well." LeBlanc also works closely with TFL and says he is "very supportive in telling people the benefits in our experience, being candid and opening the books, for what we went through" making the switch.

But — surprise — LeBlanc wouldn't support a ban.

"Bar owners and restaurant owners should have choices," he says. "I'm not in favor of forcing people to do something against their will with blanket legislation."

Conversely, there's Bridge Lounge owner Max Chesney. Chesney is a smoker, and smoking is allowed at his Garden District watering hole, but he says he's not opposed to a ban. Without that legislative pressure, however, the smoking sign at Bridge Lounge will stay on.

click to enlarge Deacon John Moore is among the musicians in the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living campaign to ban smoking in bars on the grounds that bar employees and musicians deserve smoke-free work environments. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Deacon John Moore is among the musicians in the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living campaign to ban smoking in bars on the grounds that bar employees and musicians deserve smoke-free work environments.

"I love (TFL), I actively support them, and I'm willing to go as far as they need us to go to get the message out," LeBlanc says. "I'm not trying to put one foot in the boat and one in the dock, I just genuinely feel that (smoking) is a choice."

Jacob Grier, a writer who has covered tobacco policy issues for publications including The Washington Post and The Oregonian, has had a front-row seat for the smoking wars. Since Grier moved to Oregon from Washington, D.C. several years ago, Oregon outlawed smoking in bars. Grier says that there's no way a statewide ban can be enacted anywhere without having some impact on jobs, though he says it may not be across the board.

"There are certain individual businesses that will be impacted — bars, smoke shops, hookah lounges — those individual places are going to be massively impacted," Grier says. "The day after the ban here went into effect, a local (smoking) lounge laid off four employees." Also down in Oregon, he says: video poker and lottery revenues, which in that state, as in Louisiana, are sources of revenue for public schools.

As for an overall economic impact, Grier is skeptical of the numbers put forth by both sides. "It's hard to measure," he says. "If you pass a ban in a recession, you can't tell if revenues are down because of the recession or because of the ban. If you pass it during an economic boom, the opposite is true. It's hard to generalize."

Nevada took no chances. When the state passed the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act in 2007, it specifically exempted casinos, the lifeblood of the state's economy. But when the Smoke-Free Illinois Act went into effect in 2008, it barred smoking in casinos as well as bars and restaurants. In an analysis written for The Regional Economist, authors Thomas A. Garrett and Michael R. Pakko cited statistics from the Illinois Casino Gaming Association showing casino revenue dropped 19 percent that year. Critics pointed out 2008 was a recession year — but casino revenue in neighboring states where smoking was still allowed (Indiana, Iowa, Missouri) actually went up. Garrett and Pakko estimated the state's tax loss at $200 million, adding "In a full analysis, these costs need to be considered alongside other costs and benefits, including the public health benefits of the legislation." Meanwhile, in 2009, it took Atlantic City, N.J. one month to reverse a ban on smoking in casinos, reverting to a previous law where 75 percent of a casino floor had to be smoke-free, though New Jersey may take up the issue again this year.

Last month, TFL released the results from air-quality tests it analyzed in Lafayette barrooms during December and January. The tests, performed by TFL and Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center's School of Public Health, rated 17 of 22 smoke-filled barrooms as "unhealthy," "very unhealthy" or "hazardous," measurements defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Those readings present "serious risk of respiratory effects in the general population, and significant aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in people with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly," according to the report.

Contreras says bar owners are largely in support of a smoke-free option, but without the cover of the law, they're concerned about doing it on their own. "Most people not in support of it fear what it would do to their business," she says. "A lot of (the campaign) is educating the business community with what it really means to go smoke-free — cutting down on cleaning costs, less sick days from employees. There are a lot of positive benefits. Plus you get patrons that weren't coming out before because there was smoke. The fears there are really just based on what people are unsure of."

If a law should pass, smoking destinations like Dos Jefes, Shaner feels, would take a hit to their business, just as Grier predicts. "People would want to smoke somewhere else. Most people that come here smoke. It's what it is: a cigar bar," he says. "The music, the fine liquor — it's all just the atmosphere that goes with the cigar bar, the smoking. It's the whole genre, the whole thing about it."

Since banning smoking inside Republic, LeBlanc says, "We, if anything, experienced an uptick. We still have plenty of people who smoke, they just smoke outside, and I think they appreciate it as well."

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