Less than a week after New Orleans passed a local law to ban smoking in bars and casinos, some Baton Rouge medical professionals and local leaders are pushing the capital city to strike while the iron’s still hot.
On Tuesday, Mayor-President Kip Holden and leaders from area hospitals announced a Tobacco-Free Awareness campaign they dubbed “Breathe Free Baton Rouge.” They also announced that all major Baton Rouge hospitals and medical centers have committed to smoke and tobacco-free campuses.
But while Holden took the podium to applaud the medical campuses for leading the way to create smoke-free environments where people aren’t at risk of secondhand smoke, he said in an interview later that he wasn’t prepared to say whether he would support a smoke ban for bars and casinos.
“I won’t speak off the cuff. I have to go and sit down and listen to people. I’ll listen to the interests on both sides, but I don’t make uninformed decisions,” he said.
Holden didn’t elaborate on his concerns about the impacts of a smoking ban but said, “My concern would be that everybody who needs to be at the table will have a chance to make their case to me.”
The New Orleans smoking ban has prompted some other cities, such as Lafayette, to also consider banning smoking in bars. Lafayette City-Parish Council Chairman Kenneth Boudreaux said last week he wants to add Lafayette to the roster of cities with such bans.
Dr. Jay Brooks, chairman of the Oncology Department for Ochsner Health Center-Baton Rouge, said it is vital for elected leaders to pursue a smoke ban, particularly in the interest of protecting workers at casinos and bars who may feel uncomfortable taking a stand against their employers.
“There is no safe level of secondhand smoke,” Brooks said, calling it a social justice issue. “They’re being forced because of their jobs to be exposed to these chemicals. The amount of formaldehyde, the amount of benzene they’re inhaling — there’s no other industry where that would be tolerated.”
In Louisiana, 800 people die from secondhand smoke per year, he said.
Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards said, if needed, she would “definitely” sponsor and support a smoking ban that mirrored the New Orleans ordinance.
“We should replicate what New Orleans has done,” she said. “We should be a forerunner and a pioneer, and hopefully we will see a ripple effect across the state where people are embracing this idea.”
Edwards, who was diagnosed more than a year ago with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, said she now feels a personal calling to health-related public policy.
“This is near and dear to my heart,” she said. “Anything that relates to cancer, that puts people at higher risk, increases our health care costs or impacts adversely our environment.”
Last week, Councilman John Delgado, who owns three nonsmoking bars, said he would also consider sponsoring an ordinance. Delgado said he recognizes that most major cities in the country are approving bans, but said he also had reservations about legislation that could potentially hurt businesses.
Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe also said Tuesday he would support a smoking ban for bars.
At least one Baton Rouge bar is already volunteering to make the change to go nonsmoking. On Feb. 4, Spanish Moon, on Highland Road, will go smoke free.
Shane Courrege, co-owner of the popular concert venue and bar, said management had been mulling the change for several months but felt like the New Orleans vote created the right timing.
While critics of smoke bans regularly argue that the regulations curb business revenue, Courrege said management actually decided to make the change because they think being a smoky bar is deterring customers from coming to the bar.
However, Courrege also co-owns Duvics, another Baton Rouge bar, which will continue to allow smoking. He said as a business owner he wants the right to make the decision and doesn’t agree with the city-parish imposing anti-smoking laws.
Wade Duty, Louisiana Casino Association executive director, said Baton Rouge casinos are keeping a close eye on the council as they mull potential regulatory ordinances.
“Every jurisdiction that ever imposed smoking bans on commercial casinos sees an immediate and significant drop in revenues,” Duty said. “And revenues translate into tax revenue for the parish.”
The East Baton Rouge Parish coffers are more directly impacted by casino earnings than New Orleans, he said, because the parish earns a percentage off the top of casino revenue, whereas New Orleans casino revenue is directed through the state budget.
Duty also said casinos are more adversely affected than restaurants because when a customer has to step outside to smoke, “they are not participating in the primary activity of that establishment.”
Alec Wilder is the owner of the Bulldog, with two locations in New Orleans and one in Baton Rouge. All of his bars have allowed smoking, because many of his regulars are smokers, he said. But Wilder said he didn’t fight the ordinance in New Orleans and wouldn’t fight it in the capital city because he doesn’t think it will ultimately hurt business.
“We will support what the city wants to do,” he said. “People will still want to go out and socialize, and if they smoke, they’ll just go outside on our beautiful patio.”
Tonia Moore, associate director with Tobacco Free Living, said when the state passed a law preventing smoking in restaurants in 2007, critics complained it would hurt business. But time has shown restaurants were not significantly impaired by the change, she said.
The nonprofit organization was one of the main proponents who helped pass the ordinance in New Orleans, and Moore said Baton Rouge should be next.
“It’s time,” she said. “With New Orleans setting an example for the entire state, we’d like to see Baton Rouge be the next to implement the initiative.”