The New Orleans City Council is scheduled to vote on a long-discussed smoking ordinance this week, but the outcome already seems clear: Smoke 'em if you got 'em, because the smoking restrictions placed on local restaurants in 2007 seem poised to hit the city's barrooms in the very near future, in one form or another. New Orleans Health Department Director Charlotte Parent and Mayor Mitch Landrieu support the restrictions, though the mayor's support has been low key. Supporters of the proposed ordinance say smoking is no more appropriate in bars than it is in any other workplace. Opponents say smoking policies should be a choice left to bar owners based on customer demand.
District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell has spearheaded the move to restrict smoking, with staunch support from District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry. Cantrell appears to have enough council votes to pass the ordinance, the current version of which is far more practical than the original draft she introduced in November. At least some of the modifications stem from concerns expressed by the public and by District C Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, who represents the bar- and tourist-heavy French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny.
The changes include exempting cigar and hookah bars, allowing smoking in outdoor bar patios (where it originally would have been prohibited), and reducing the distance outdoor smokers must remain from an establishment's exterior doorway from 25 feet to five feet — solving a logistical problem in the Vieux Carre, where doors are often less than 25 feet apart.
Cantrell made another change that's gone largely unnoticed: The original draft exempted up to 50 percent of local hotel rooms; the revised ordinance outlaws smoking in all hotel and motel rooms. One of the rationales behind the ban is the number of major medical groups that won't meet in cities that don't have a smoke-free law. It thus makes sense to ban smoking in all hotel rooms.
There remains at least one sticking point: electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, which emit water vapor, not smoke. E-cigs were discussed last week during a public comment session in City Hall, with some saying that not enough is known about them, while others say that a nonsmoking ordinance should encourage the devices because they can help smokers quit. Others suggested that if cigar bars are exempt from the rules, "vape" shops — where customers try e-cigs before buying them — should be exempt as well. That seems fair.
Council members should at least pass an ordinance that's reasonable — and enforceable.
The proposed ordinance has pitted the city's largest health advocates against some of the biggest names in the hospitality industry. Supporters include the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network, which released a December poll that showed 56 percent of respondents (across all New Orleans council districts) "strongly favor" a ban. Opponents have formed the Freedom to Choose Coalition, which includes Harrah's New Orleans, the Louisiana Restaurant Association, the French Quarter Business League and others.
Proponents of the ordinance point to similar bans in dozens of cities as proof that nonsmoking ordinances don't hurt business — and in some cases they help. Still, New Orleans is not like other cities, and some questions remain. For example, the first line of enforcement here will be bartenders, servers and bar owners. We assume most smokers will comply upon request. Potential fines in the initial draft of the ordinance were clear enough — a first-time fine of $100 for the smoker, and the possible "suspension or revocation of any permit or license issued to the person for the premises on which the violation occurred." But who will actually enforce the new law?
In a city that is laser-focused on crime — to the point where New Orleans Police Chief Michael Harrison has canceled all time off for cops during Carnival season — using police to enforce a nonsmoking ordinance seems silly as well as impractical. Some have suggested that the forthcoming NOLA Patrol, a paid group of unarmed citizens given power to enforce "quality of life" issues in the French Quarter, might take on this role, but the Quarter is just one neighborhood. What about the rest of the city's bars and restaurants? The New Orleans Health Department comes to mind as an enforcement agency, but that department is as budget-strapped as any other at City Hall.
Cantrell's proposed ordinance is scheduled for a vote Jan. 22. Obviously many details must be worked out (including the first day of implementation, which is set in the ordinance for 30 days after passage). If council members are determined to discourage smoking, they should at least pass an ordinance that's reasonable — and enforceable.