New Orleans moved a step closer to banning smoking in most public places last week after a proposed smoking ban — including prohibiting smoking in bars and casinos — had its first public debate before a City Council committee. The full council will consider the ordinance on Jan. 22.
Supporters and opponents packed the council's Community Development Committee meeting. After three hours of often-heated argument, the committee voted 3-2 to approve a long list of changes to the original draft.
District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell announced plans to introduce the measure last summer, and in November she unveiled a 25-page ordinance banning all tobacco products (including electronic cigarettes) from public areas and prohibiting smoking within 25 feet of a business. Last week's amendments exempt cigar bars and hookah lounges, allow smoking in approved bar patio areas and change the 25-feet rule to 5 feet.
Debate among bar owners, musicians, health advocates, e-cig vendors and smokers ignited a three-hour meeting, with a crowd spilling outside the council chamber at City Hall. Several people shouted for a chance to speak when time for public comment ran out. Musicians, including Deacon John Moore, Irvin Mayfield, Paul Sanchez and Bonerama's Craig Klein, voiced support for the ordinance.
"My primary concern is the health of those people who are the backbone," said Moore, whose voice broke as he read a statement to the committee. "I'm tired of witnessing beloved artists dying from the effects of secondhand smoke. ... Many are the standard bearers for the indigenous culture we love so dearly."
Others, like smoker Elizabeth Stella, said the ordinance goes against the attitude New Orleans embraces. "It's not New York, it's not Seattle, it's a party town," she said. "A bar is not a health spa and alcohol is not a spa drink."
A group of health advocates has led the campaign supporting the ordinance. Those advocates are the Louisiana Public Health Institute (LPHI) and the SmokeFree New Orleans Coalition — which includes the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, American Heart Association, Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation and other groups.
Opponents, such as the French Quarter Business League and Bourbon Street bar owner Earl Bernhardt, have fought the proposed measure on economic grounds. Logan Gaskill, human resources director for Harrah's New Orleans Casino, said, "Working in a smoking environment is only one of the components of working at Harrah's."
District E Councilman James Gray told Gaskill people aren't in a position to choose where they can find employment given the current job market. "[With] an employer of your size, I'm going to be little affected by, 'If they don't want to work here, they don't have to work here,'" Gray told Gaskill.
Electronic cigarette users — "vapers" — also are targeted in the ordinance, which cites uncertainty over safety and difficulty of enforcing e-cig use as reasons it would be prohibited. Vape supporters argued that e-cigs not only can be used as a smoking cessation tool, but that if cigar bars can be grandfathered into the ordinance, then there's no reason that it can't also allow for e-cig use in vape shops.
At-Large Councilman Jason Williams said e-cigs were not properly vetted in the ordinance, which includes them in a ban because of early reports from the Food and Drug Administration alleging harmful chemicals in e-cig vapor. State lawmakers last year passed a measure prohibiting the sale of e-cigs to minors.
Gray and Williams were the two nay votes, with Gray saying he supports a ban, but wanted more time to approve the new amendments. Cantrell and committee members Susan Guidry and Stacy Head voted yes.
The measure was to be taken up at the full Council meeting on Jan. 8, but Cantrell deferred it to Jan. 22.