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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Smoking ban debate heats up in City Hall

Posted By on Wed, Jan 7, 2015 at 6:15 PM

click to enlarge New Orleans City Council chambers filled with supporters and opponents of an ordinance that could ban smoking in most public places, including bars and casinos. - ALEX WOODWARD
  • New Orleans City Council chambers filled with supporters and opponents of an ordinance that could ban smoking in most public places, including bars and casinos.

New Orleans could be one step closer to banning smoking in most public places. A proposed ban — including prohibiting smoking in bars and casinos — had its first public debate today in New Orleans City Council chambers, where supporters and opponents packed the council's community development committee meeting. Following three hours of discussion, debate and heated argument, the committee approved a long list of changes to the original draft by a 3-2 vote.

District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell first 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. Today's amendments, however, exempt cigar bars and hookah lounges, allow smoking in approved bar patio areas, and change the 25-feet rule to 5 feet.

Supporters hail the ordinance as a much-needed public health measure that will prevent secondhand smoke and improve quality of life for employees (including musicians) in smoke-filled workplaces. Opponents, however, fear a disastrous economic impact that could hit employees — whether in small bars with a few bartenders or massive employment machines like Harrah's Casino — and trickle down to the local economy.

Swirling around the arguments for and against a smoking ban are a few key questions council members must now face: will smokers' economic impact prevail, and how does that weigh against nonsmokers' rights to a smoke-free environment? And will electronic cigarettes be determined safe enough to survive a ban?

Others, like smoker Elizabeth Stella, say 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."

Debate among bar owners, musicians, health advocates and e-cig vendors and smokers ignited a three-hour meeting, with a crowd spilling outside council chambers and several people shouting 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 their 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 second hand smoke. ... Many are the standard bearers for the indigenous culture we love so dearly."

Sanchez, whose mother and wife are cancer survivors, said musicians often "take what gigs they can get to pay the rent," which doesn't allow them to turn away offers in smoky venues. "We can join the future or cling to the past a little bit longer and see where that takes us," he said.

Ronald Markham, president of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, said he is "going to support any laws that embrace my musicians and protect who they are and what they do."

A group of health advocates — including 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 and Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, the Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation and other groups — has led the campaign supporting the ordinance.

"We have to provide healthy work environment," said Tonia Moore with the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco Free Living. "There is no reason industries should decide the fate of (workers' ) health. We have to protect the workforce."

Valerie Englade, who serves on the board of the American Heart Association, said "all New Orleans residents should be equally protected by the effects of second hand smoke. ... No one should be forced to breathe hazardous chemicals while earning a living."

But Logan Gaskill, the human resources director for Harrah's Casino, said  "working in a smoking environment is only one of the components of working at Harrah’s." District E Councilman James Gray said people currently aren't in a position to "choose" where they can find employment given the current job market.

"In a case where 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. Harrah's employs 2,400 people, and Gaskill said 80 percent of its employees work full-time on the floor, working tables, bartending or doing security. Cantrell and Gray asked Gaskill how many former employees have been diagnosed with smoke-causing cancer, and how many employees have checked into Harrah's clinic for respiratory problems.

Several other representative's from Louisiana's gaming industry also opposed the ordinance. Matt Wellman, vice president of the Louisiana Amusement and Music Operators Association, said the City Council should also introduce a tax increase in tandem with the smoking ban to make up for lost revenue.

"If gaming operations are flooded by new customers with a ban, why would we be opposed?" asked Wade Duty, executive director of the Louisiana Casino Association.

Bar owners also were divided. Earl Bernhardt, who owns Tropical Isle and other French Quarter clubs, said a smoking ban would injure an already vulnerable neighborhood where crime has taken a toll on businesses. Chris Young with the French Quarter Business League and anti-smoking ban group The Freedom to Choose Coalition said businesses shouldn't have to suffer a loss, even it it's short term. 

Kim Perez, who runs Adolfo's Restaurant and its newly smoke-free downstairs neighbor Apple Barrel, said she "cannot justify protecting employees on the second level without extending to employes on the lower level and musicians." Leora Madden, owner of Pearl Wine Co., also runs a smoke-free bar, and said smokers and e-cig users are welcome to smoke outside.

Electronic cigarette smokers also are targeted in the ordinance, which lists possible forthcoming health warnings and difficulty of enforcing e-cig use as reasons it would be prohibited. E-cig supporters argue 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 vape shops can't also allow for e-cig use.

E-cigs have birthed a new industry booming across south Louisiana, and its supporters feel the City Council has overreached in its ban of a product that many feel is safe not only for its users, but to others fearing secondhand "smoke." Chad Rogers, who runs a vape shop in Terrebonne Parish, was among a large group of e-cig supporters wearing T-shirts that read, "I'm not a smoker... anymore." The group was among several speakers who argued that vaping can act as a smoking cessation tool that has not yet been vetted by government health organizations. Rogers said if cigar bars are exempt from the new ban, then vape shops should also be allowed for vaping. Musician Juliette Tworsey, who opposes the ordinance as written, said vaping can potentially save lives.

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 finding harmful chemicals in e-cig smoke. Last year, the Louisiana Legislature also took on e-cigs in a number of proposed bills, and it passed a measure ensuring e-cigs are not sold to minors.

Gray and Williams were the two nay votes. Gray wanted more time to approve the new amendments, though he supports a ban. The ordinance will be deferred on tomorrow's council agenda but will appear for more public comment at a later date.

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