NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A cigarette with that Sazerac cocktail at a French Quarter bar might become a thing of the past in one of America’s most famously libertine cities.
In a move surely to divide opinions, the New Orleans City Council is considering an ordinance to make it illegal to smoke in bars, casinos, parks, at bus stops, work places and other public venues such as the zoo and festivals.
New Orleans is one of the last major American cities to allow people to smoke tobacco in bars. Smoking at indoor restaurants is no longer permitted.
“Why do we always have to be behind the eight ball? Behind the times?” said LaToya Cantrell, the City Council member who introduced the proposed ordinance. “It’s time for us to be progressive all the way — not just talking about it, but walking it.”
She said adoption of a smoking ban as vital to protecting the health of the city’s musicians, bartenders and entertainment industry workers. Several prominent musicians lined up in support of the proposal when she introduced it Nov. 20.
“These are musicians saying our bodies are our instruments,” Cantrell said. “People don’t come to New Orleans to puff on a cigarette, but they do come to New Orleans to listen to music.”
On that point, the council member is only partially correct.
“One reason I come to New Orleans is because it’s one of the few cities where you can enjoy a smoke in a bar,” said Chip Kushner, a San Diego lawyer, who sat puffing on a pipe inside a French Quarter cigar shop. “God help you if you go to San Francisco!”
“People come here to celebrate life, to enjoy life,” said Dawn Kesslering, a bartender at Johnny White’s, a proud-to-be-rundown Bourbon Street bar where smoking is the norm. “It’s one place where you can come and be American. Freedom, baby!”
Mention of the dangers of smoking caused the bar’s patrons to pipe up. “We should also ban deep-sea welding!” Kesslering said. “Let’s ban fracking!” someone added. “Let’s ban cars!” another chortled.
Bars, restaurants, video poker outlets, tobacco wholesalers and gambling halls — including the big downtown casino, Harrah’s New Orleans — have come out against the measure and vowed to fight it. Businesses that allow smoking worry about a loss of revenues, at least in the short term. Proponents of the ban say studies show business increases over time following a smoking ban.
Shelly Oechsner Waguespack shook her head at the proposed ban. She owns Pat O’Briens, a popular French Quarter bar that advertises itself as the place where the motto has been “Have Fun!” since 1933 — or when Prohibition ended.
At Pat O’Briens, smoking is allowed at the bar and in the patio but not in the piano lounge. Waguespack said bar owners should have the freedom to decide whether to allow smoking. What about protecting the bar’s workers? “They choose to work here,” she said.
Deacon John Moore, a well-known rhythm and blues band leader and musicians’ union president, said the reality for many nightlife workers — busboys, bartenders, croupiers, musicians — is that they have no choice but to work in smoke-filled rooms. He supports the ban.
“I’ve been to so many funerals of musicians who died of lung cancer,” he said. “We are one of the last bastions of drinking and smoking. That’s the image New Orleans has — the party capital of the world. Now, all they got to do is eliminate the cigarettes and it will be better. We just want to have a healthy party.”
In Louisiana, about 25 percent of adults smoke, according to federal data. New Orleans is one of only 13 major U.S. cities where smoking in public places — generally bars — is allowed, according to the American Lung Association. The other cities are Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, Las Vegas, Fort Worth, Memphis, Nashville, Jacksonville, Oklahoma City, Virginia Beach, Tulsa and Arlington.