A monthslong campaign to ban smoking in Baton Rouge’s casinos and bars was extinguished Wednesday, when the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council came one vote short of passing the ordinance.
A 2½-hour debate about the pros and cons of banning smoking at casinos and bars culminated with the Metro Council splitting the vote 6-6. Nearly 40 people addressed the council about the issue, imploring the council members to think about health, morality, fiscal responsibility and the business climate.
Metro Council members Chandler Loupe, Ryan Heck, Scott Wilson, Trae Welch, Buddy Amoroso and John Delgado voted against the ordinance. Voting in favor were its sponsors: Tara Wicker, Donna Collins-Lewis, Erika Green, Chauna Banks-Daniel, LaMont Cole and Joel Boé.
Leaders of the smoke-free movement were disappointed and frustrated after the vote. None of the council members who voted against the ordinance explained during the meeting why they did so.
Stasha Rhodes, the Smoke-free East Baton Rouge campaign manager, said she believes those council members were silent because they knew voting against the ordinance was wrong.
“We’re not going away,” Rhodes said, adding that her coalition will make voters aware of which council members “denied thousands of people clean air at work.”
After the meeting, Welch said the language of the proposed ordinance needed to be reworked.
“To me, there are zero redeeming qualities of smoking,” he said. “But the way this ordinance was written was so far-reaching.”
The meeting was among the most well-attended in the past few years. About 150 people packed into the council chambers, the overflow area and the hallway specifically for the debate.
Casino executives from L’Auberge Casino and Hotel, Hollywood Casino and the Belle of Baton Rouge showed up in full force and tried to quell concerns about their employees’ well-being.
Mickey Parenton, the senior vice president of operations and general manager of L’Auberge, insisted his No. 1 priority is his employees. He said if an employee complains about smoke, he would move the employee to a smoke-free part of L’Auberge without a change in pay.
Three L’Auberge employees also spoke at the meeting, all saying they are not bothered by the smoke in their workplaces and that they are more concerned about their company losing revenue.
“I knew when I filled out the application that it’s a smoking environment,” said Trivia Weatherspoon, who said she has been working at L’Auberge for a few years. “This is my choice; I don’t need anyone to make a choice for me.”
Casino executives said they would expect about a 20 percent drop in revenue if the ordinance passed. New Orleans banned smoking in casinos and bars a year ago, and council members and people attending Wednesday’s meeting squabbled over how much that smoking ban is to blame for declining revenues at Harrah’s New Orleans Hotel and Casino.
Numbers from the Louisiana Gaming Control Board show that Harrah’s posted a 10 percent decline in 2015 compared with 2014. The annual takes, though, show that Harrah’s revenue had steady declines from 2008 through 2011. Revenue was relatively flat in 2012 and 2013, with a small bump in 2014.
But the 10 percent drop last year, when the casino took in $307 million, was the biggest slide in the past nine years. Other casino leaders said at Wednesday’s meeting that they expected the same.
“Our admissions and revenues will drop, with possible job loss,” said Patrick Browne, the general manager of the Belle of Baton Rouge.
The owners of Cadillac Cafe, Bayou Tobacco and Habana Port Cigar Merchants also told the Metro Council that they were concerned about their businesses losing money if smoking were banned. Casino executives and bar owners reminded the Metro Council that they pay taxes and that their money helps the city-parish pay salaries for police officers, firefighters and other public safety initiatives.
The city-parish received $9.8 million from contracts with casinos last year in its $830 million budget.
The coalition of people who asked the Metro Council to pass the ordinance was broad, including doctors, public health officials, former casino employees, musicians and some bar owners as well. Doctors said that despite good air filtration at some casinos, air filtration does not eliminate all of the hazardous chemicals in smoke that employees and patrons are inhaling.
Others said they were disturbed by the lengthy discussions about business and revenue without discussions about people’s health and people’s rights.
“Are we really so financially destitute, are we really so morally destitute that we are willing to sacrifice our workers to fill the gaps in our finances?” asked Jule Asser, a Baton Rouge physician.
Remi DeMatteo, the general manager of The Bulldog, said his bar has been surprisingly successful since becoming smoke-free a year ago. He said The Bulldog has taken in 10 percent more than its target profits for each quarter.
Musicians Michael Foster, Kenny Neal and Henry Turner all mentioned the struggle of performing in smoky venues night after night. Foster said it’s frustrating to be able to play in smoke-free venues in other parts of the country and the world but to have to inhale smoke when he’s playing at home in Baton Rouge.
“When we play in a place like that, we can go home and our instruments tell us the story,” Neal said. “We can wipe our horns or our guitars, but we can’t wipe our lungs.”