An Acadiana legislator is renewing his push Tuesday to forbid smoking in bars, casinos and sports arenas.
If Opelousas Democratic Rep. Dustin Miller succeeds in clearing committees and both chambers, Louisiana would soon be the first Southern state to have a comprehensive statewide smoke-free law.
He sidestepped a vote last week on his House Bill 881 and promised to talk with business owners concerned about how a ban would affect their businesses. The legislation is back on Tuesday’s agenda of the House Health & Welfare Committee.
Miller said he wants to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke.
“The rights of a nonsmoker do not end where the rights of a smoker begin,” he said in the meeting. “No one should have to choose between their health and a paycheck.”
A law passed in 2007 prohibited smoking in restaurants and most public places. HB881, if passed, would become effective January 2019.
Ashley and Friday Ellis were among those in opposition who testified last week, saying it could hurt their business. They are the owners of Governors Cigar & Pipe in Monroe. Friday Ellis called the measure a “broad overreach” as it would force his small business to compete with online companies.
The couple emphasized that all who purchase from their business know the inherent risks of smoking and secondhand smoke, and said “inherent risks is what makes us inherently American.”
“People come in not to buy the cigar, but to buy the experience,” Ashley Ellis said.
Miller said he agreed with the couple and didn’t want to put anyone out of business. He later decided to address that concern before bringing it up again, as the bill was “a little overreached in some areas.”
“I am not attacking smokers, I’m not attacking business owners,” Miller said. “I’m simply trying to be an advocate for the unintended effects of secondhand smoke.”
The U.S. Surgeon General has ruled exposure to secondhand smoke can lead to lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and serious respiratory illnesses.
Raegan Carter, senior manager for Tobacco Control and Prevention with the Louisiana Public Health Institute, said 78 percent of Louisiana residents don’t smoke.
Smoking among adults has decreased, according to the Smoke-free Louisiana Campaign Coalition. In the last two years, adult smoking decreased from 23.5 percent of adult smokers in 2013 to 22.8 percent in 2015-16. Louisiana’s rate of smoking is still higher than the national rate of 15.5 percent, however.
Miller’s measure poses concern among those involved in the gaming industry in Louisiana.
Alton Ashy, a lobbyist for the Louisiana Video Gaming Association, said the industry directly employs over 15,000 in the state and another 10,000 indirect employees. As the highest-taxed industry in Louisiana, truck stops pay 32.5 percent in taxes a year, and bars and restaurants pay 26.5 percent of tax to the state, resulting in $180 million in direct tax revenue and an overall economic impact of $360 million, he said.
“This is not somebody behind a curtain pulling strings — these are, by law, Louisiana citizens that are involved in the video gaming industry,” Ashy said.
Louisiana Casino Association executive director Wade Duty said cities should address the issue, rather than go statewide.
New Orleans passed legislation in 2015 to ban indoor smoking and the use of e-cigarettes as a way to protect service industry workers and musicians from secondhand smoke. Baton Rouge in August 2017 outlawed smoking inside the city's bars and casinos.
Miller said casino executives can’t blame smoke-free air for any decline in revenue since the ban won’t take place in Baton Rouge until June. “The bottom line is: gaming is volatile, and being smoke-free indoors is not the reason,” Miller said.
Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall, quit smoking 40 years ago when his doctor told him continuing to smoke would kill his daughter, who had lung problems at the time. And while he said he would like to vote for the measure, the top taxpayer in his district, who owns a video poker establishment, is worried that it would harm the business.
“He’s the highest taxpayer in your area, but we’re going to continue to use his money to pay for treatments for asthma, treatments for emphysema, treatments for lung cancer,” Miller said.
Miller said Louisiana suffers almost $1.89 billion in health care costs annually for smoking-related deaths.
Women of color are more susceptible to developing cardiovascular disease, said Ashley Hebert, the government relations director at the American Heart Association. She said so many women of color work in Louisiana casinos that telling them to “get over it and get another job” shouldn’t be an option.
“It’s really not that easy for communities of color,” Hebert said. “What is easy is asking a smoker to step outside and smoke.”