Dr. J. Leonard Lichtenfeld

I recently testified in front of the New Orleans City Council regarding a new ordinance that would prohibit smoking in the city’s bars and casino. It is a topic that has engendered a lot of discussion among the residents of this iconic American city.

Most notable among the many voices at the hearing were the sweet sounds that came from the musicians. These artists earn their living inhaling the smoke of others, and they came out loud and clear about the need and benefit of being able to provide us entertainment in a healthier, smoke-free environment. As one of them noted, a performer doesn’t have to consume a bit of every alcoholic beverage served all night long. But when someone smokes in their face, they have no option but to take it in.

Restaurants in New Orleans are already smoke-free, but bars and casinos are exempt. This bill is an effort to close that loophole.

We all know the harms of smoking. Tobacco is a legal product that can kill you when consumed as intended. More than 480,000 people die in this country this year and every year from tobacco-related illnesses. At least 12 cancer types — not just lung cancer — are linked to tobacco. The toll is immense, and the impact on our health and our health care is difficult to comprehend. We pass the numbers around as though they were of little meaning, not giving much thought to what they truly represent. If we did take a moment to consider the enormity of the problem, we would be appalled.

Then there is the impact of secondhand smoke. More than 42,000 Americans die every year as a result of inhaling the smoke of others in homes, workplaces and elsewhere — 7,000 of them from lung cancer. And how many more are injured and have serious health consequences, especially cardiovascular disease, as a result of either living or working in a smoking environment?

Secondhand smoke is harmful. Its effects can accumulate in your body over long periods of time. One study cited by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network notes that the level of pollutants in a smoking establishment can reach 50 times the amount found at the entrance of the Holland Tunnel in New York City at rush hour.

I don’t know how many people including me testified at the hearing. It went on for a few hours, evenly balanced between those in favor of and those against the legislation. But the passion of those committed to making all of New Orleans’ entertainment and eating establishments smoke-free was there for all to see. Hearing the pleas from the musicians, and those from the professionals who provide medical care to them, was perhaps one of the most poignant moments I have experienced in public testimony. I simply wasn’t expecting the depth of feeling expressed by those who entertain us with their instruments, their voices and their passion for their work.

The stories were repeated again and again. In effect: I work in bars and casinos to make a living. Smoke is part of my professional life. I breathe it and have to keep on playing/singing/performing. It stings, it hurts, my music can’t be as good as I want it to be because of the smoke. I didn’t even think twice about it until I worked in a smoke-free place. The difference was real and it was immediate. Please pass this ordinance.

The showdown will continue through Thursday when a vote is planned. ACS CAN strongly encourages the City Council to pass this ordinance. Among all the voices, it was the musicians whose sounds were truly the sweetest. It came from their hearts, and New Orleans should listen to their song.

Dr. J. Leonard Lichtenfeld is deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society.