The fate of a proposed ban on smoking in Lafayette bars is uncertain as the City-Parish Council prepares for a May 19 vote on an issue that has one side arguing public health and the other championing the rights of business owners.
No consensus has emerged on the council about whether bars here will join the long list of other public places where smoking has been outlawed in recent years.
Three councilmen said in interviews over the past week that they likely will support Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux’s proposed ban: Jay Castille, Kevin Naquin and Brandon Shelvin.
But passage would require five votes, and others on the nine-member council are either opposed or on the fence.
Councilman Don Bertrand said Friday he has yet to make up his mind, and Councilman Keith Patin said in an earlier interview he was undecided.
Councilmen William Theriot, Jared Bellard and Andy Naquin — considered a conservative bloc on the council — all oppose a ban.
“I feel it should be up to owners, and that patrons, workers and all employees, including musicians, have the option to work and play there,” Andy Naquin said.
He characterized the proposed ban as an infringement on the rights of business owners.
Boudreaux said he is sensitive to that concern.
It’s an issue he raised himself during a public forum he sponsored three years ago when he began exploring the possibility of banning smoking in bars. Boudreaux said he now believes it’s time for local government to step in.
“This isn’t about choice,” he said. “This is about protecting the greater good.”
Supporters of the smoking ban frame the issue as one of workplace safety for the bartenders, musicians and wait staff who are often forced to earn their living in the haze of secondhand smoke.
Local musician and Grammy-winner Chubby Carrier has been a vocal advocate of the proposed ban, which also is being backed by the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living.
Councilman Kevin Naquin, a Cajun accordion player who has gigged in his fair share of smoky bars, was initially undecided about the measure but said he now backs it after several meetings with bar owners and fellow musicians.
“As a musician, I understand it and support it,” he said.
Shelvin said he too had been on the fence but feels the ban would address a critical public health issue.
“I know first hand what smoking can do to a family,” said Shelvin, who lost his father, grandmother and two other family members to smoking-related lung cancer. “I am going to vote for the smoking ban. I think it’s great for Lafayette as a whole.”
Shelvin’s district takes in the downtown area, among the largest concentration of bars in the city, but he said he does not believe bar business will suffer, if the history of smoking bans in other cities is any indication.
“At the end of the day, we are not trying to hurt anybody’s business or anybody’s bottom line,” he said.
Downtown bar owners have yet to take a formal stance on the issue, said Gus Rezende, who owns the Jefferson Street Pub downtown and is president of the Downtown Lafayette Restaurant & Bar Association.
The vote in Lafayette comes after city councils in New Orleans, Sulphur and Hammond approved similar smoking bans earlier this year, and it’s not the first time the Lafayette City-Parish Council waded into smoking regulations.
The council approved a law in 2005 that prohibits smoking within 25 feet of the public entrance of most businesses.
But three years later, the council killed a proposal to ban smoking on property where a hospital or other health care facility is located.
Since then, all private hospitals in Lafayette have voluntarily gone smoke-free.
Bertrand said the bar industry might go down a similar path in the near future, but he also sees the other side of the argument and knows smoking is a serious public health issue.
He admittedly grapples with the idea of what he feels might be an attempt to legislate morality.
“I don’t feel I should have to make all the moral and health decisions for the adults in our city,” he said.
Follow Richard Burgess on Twitter, @rbb100.