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Kathleen McLeod signs a blue card indicating her support of a ban on smoking in local bars at a Smoke Free Rally before a meeting of the Lafayette City Parish Council to vote on the issue on Tuesday, April 18, 2017, at City Hall.

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY BRAD BOWIE --

To improve the lives of vulnerable citizens, the Baton Rouge Metro Council should snuff out smoking in almost all commercial places and spaces.

The council is slated to consider such a measure this week. The proposed ordinance would ban smoking in public and enclosed spaces except for private clubs, cigar bars, hookah bars, as well as outdoor seating, patios and courtyards at bars and casinos. Baton Rouge would join New Orleans, Lafayette, Alexandria and Monroe as major Louisiana cities with similar bans, leaving only Shreveport, Kenner, Lake Charles and Bossier City without restrictions beyond state law.

Arguments over the issue often provoke passion on several different fronts. In New Orleans, Harrah’s Casino lost revenue after the city outlawed indoor smoking. But studies note that bans on smoking in bars did not hamper —and in some cases, even increased — economic activity in many communities. With that in mind, the potential impact on Baton Rouge’s entertainment sector and the tax revenues it produces is uncertain.

Even if some businesses, and therefore government, would lose dollars, a larger good is at stake. A ban would help nonsmoking patrons and employees avoid health problems.

Critics of a smoking ban like the one before the Metro Council argue that market forces, not government mandates, should prevail. If enough people want smoke-free casinos and bars, as the argument goes, the market will respond, giving clients and workers choices. 

But smoking inflicts involuntary harm on some individuals. While smoke merely annoys many, it affects others much more severely. About one in 11 Americans over age 40 suffer from obstructive lung diseases. Even a whiff of smoke can cause them immediate distress.

Current law in Baton Rouge prevents such people from patronizing bars and casinos where smoking is allowed. Why should smokers be given priority over those who want to engage in commerce without risk to their health?

How we treat persons with disabilities should apply in this case. While just a small portion of the public has enough mobility impairment that they need businesses to modify surroundings, the law mandates this to prevent shutting out these individuals from commerce. The same should apply to smoking. In essence, all businesses not directly related to smoking should be required to supply clean air to permit breathing-impaired customers equal access.

With that in mind, the proposed Baton Rouge ordinance should go further. It should apply to outdoor spaces used by bars and casinos, since those with pulmonary problems also like the breeze and sunshine. 

Smokers don’t have to smoke. However, everybody needs to breathe, and some — ironically including many former smokers — can’t help it if smoke impairs that ability. No reason justifies licensing voluntary behavior that makes other people sick. It’s past time for Baton Rouge to halt this privileging.

Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics, www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email jeffsadowtheadvocate@yahoo.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.