The debate over whether Baton Rougeans should be able to smoke in casinos and bars is starting to light up, with some East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council members ready to trash the ashtrays and others questioning if a ban amounts to a government overstep.
More than anything, council members have questions about what the ban would look like and if it could result in a hit to the city-parish pocketbook.
Councilwomen Tara Wicker and Chauna Banks-Daniel said they are waiting for a political campaign kicked off this week to catch fire before they submit an ordinance to ban smoking in casinos and bars, the two main workplaces exempted from a state smoke-free law that went into effect in 2007. The push in Baton Rouge comes a little less than a year after New Orleans banned smoking in bars and casinos with the exception of cigar and hookah bars.
One fact is certain: The city-parish received $9.8 million from casinos last year in its $830 million budget. It came from several types of taxes and contracts that give the city-parish a certain percent of net gaming proceeds from the L’Auberge Casino and Hotel, Belle of Baton Rouge Casino and Hotel and Hollywood Casino.
The nearly $10 million payout is no small change in a city-parish where officials frequently argue over whether there’s enough discretionary money to give employees raises or build sidewalks.
None of Baton Rouge casinos have voiced opposition to the idea of eradicating smoking yet.
“When we see what is being offered, we will be prepared to comment at that time; however, we won’t speculate about the issue,” said Kim Ginn, the vice president of marketing for L’Auberge Baton Rouge.
“We’re continuing to monitor it, evaluate it, and we’ll go from there,” said Anthony Frabbiele, vice president and general manager of Hollywood Casino.
Representatives with the Belle of Baton Rouge did not return phone calls.
Both before and after New Orleans’ smoking ban, representatives for Harrah’s Casino New Orleans raised the loudest complaints, eventually saying the prohibition had a noticeable impact on the casino’s bottom line.
A review of gaming revenue figures gathered by the Louisiana Gaming Control Board showed the casino posted a 10 percent decline in 2015 compared with 2014. The New Orleans ban went into effect in April.
“To say that it’s because of the smoke-free law, I think is not wholly true at all,” said Stasha Rhodes, the campaign manager for Smoke-Free Baton Rouge. She pointed out that Harrah’s has seen other revenue losses since 2007. There were declines in the months leading up to the ban compared with the previous year.
A look at the annual takes, however, showed that while there were steady declines from 2007 through 2011, revenue was relatively stable in the following three years, with both slight decreases and a small bump in 2014, during which Harrah’s reported $342 million in revenue. The 10 percent drop last year, when the casino took in $307 million, was the biggest percentage slide in the past nine years.
Since the New Orleans ban, Harrah’s has proposed opening outdoor smoking courtyards with slot machines, which would need city approval.
Rhodes said the Baton Rouge campaign, which was publicly unveiled Tuesday, will focus on spreading the message that it’s harmful for casino and bar employees to work in smoky environments where they inhale secondhand smoke that can lead to health problems. The campaign has no end date on it, and Rhodes said they will continue pushing for a smoke-free Baton Rouge until the Metro Council responds with an ordinance.
The people on the forefront of the push include doctors, faith leaders and musicians, who often perform in smoky bars and clubs. Rhodes said they have met with council members but have not met with casino representatives.
As part of the campaign, the group commissioned a poll that shows 70 percent of East Baton Rouge Parish registered voters favor a law that “prohibits smoking in all workplaces, including bars and casinos.” The poll was conducted in December by surveying 500 people over the phone. Its margin of error is plus or minus 4.38 percent.
East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden wouldn’t speculate on whether he would support a smoking ban similar to the one in New Orleans
But Holden did say casinos in the two cities are not comparable. He said Harrah’s in New Orleans was much smokier than Baton Rouge’s casinos.
“I’m open, but I’m cautious,” Holden said of a potential smoke ban.
His wait-and-see approach is mirrored by a few Metro Council members who said they will need to see an exact proposal before making up their minds. Among them are Buddy Amoroso, Ronnie Edwards’ replacement Erika Green and C. Denise Marcelle’s replacement LaMont Cole.
Donna Collins-Lewis and Joel Boé both said they plan to join colleagues Banks-Daniel and Wicker in supporting an ordinance to ban smoking in bars and casinos.
Boé said his support comes from a public health perspective.
“I don’t think anybody can dispute the science behind that,” he said.
He said it helps that New Orleans instituted a ban before Baton Rouge, which means smokers won’t be able to take their gambling business to New Orleans instead. The L’Auberge in Lake Charles allows smoking, but it’s a much farther drive.
Trae Welch acknowledged his plan to vote against a proposed ban may not win favor with all of his constituents.
He said the smoking ban is more about government intervention than public health and that the city-parish is already filled with options for nonsmokers.
“Nobody makes me work at a place that has smoke in it; nobody makes me spend money at a place that has smoke in it,” Welch said. “I don’t think we should get into the habit of banning things that aren’t illegal.”
Scott Wilson also said he was inclined to vote against a smoking ban because he does not support government telling business owners how to run their ventures. But he said there is room for him to change his mind once he receives more information.
Rhodes said the freedom of business owners needs to be balanced with the freedom of their employees and customers to breathe clean air. She argued government intervention on smoking is akin to government intervention on drunk driving.
John Delgado, who owns four downtown bars, said he would support a smoking ban in bars but not in casinos. Only one of his bars — Brickyard South — allows smoking inside, and he said the lack of smoking at his other bars hasn’t been a financial problem.
But he said it’s easier for someone to buy a drink at a bar and take a drag outside than it is for someone to take a smoke break in the middle of a roulette game. A bar owner needs only to sell drinks to make a profit, whereas casino managers need people to keep playing games.
Delgado was confident that banning smoking at casinos would draw away customers, based on Harrah’s declines.
“If their revenues go down, that’s a big problem,” he said, referencing the checks that casinos cut to the city-parish.
Ryan Heck would not comment for this story, and Chandler Loupe did not return messages.
Rhodes said the capital city needs to be a leader in the smoke-free movement and send a message to other cities. Along with New Orleans, Alexandria, Monroe and West Monroe have all gone smoke free.
Advocate staff writer Rebekah Allen contributed to this report.