Back in 2002, when the New York City Council was considering then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban smoking in indoor public places, Greg Jones was frightened. He feared the nightclub he managed would lose 20 percent of its business as smokers bolted for tobacco-friendly establishments.
“However, once all was said and done, we saw no drop in our business,” Jones said last week. “None at all.”
Thirteen years later, Jones, now the general manager of Oz nightclub in the French Quarter, is facing another proposed smoking ban. This time he’s pushing for it.
“Many of the tourists automatically do go outside and smoke and are quite surprised when we tell them that they can smoke inside,” Jones told the New Orleans City Council during its first meeting to consider an ordinance making it illegal to smoke in most indoor public spaces. “Most of the United States is educated to this and prefer to go outside and smoke.”
That presumably is because bans on indoor smoking are fairly common these days. Nearly 82 percent of the U.S. population lives in a state, commonwealth, city or county covered by some kind of smoke-free law, most commonly a prohibition against smoking in workplaces outside the hospitality industry. That works out to 22,536 municipalities, according to data collected by the advocacy group American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation.
Some 700 counties and cities, including Chicago, Boston, Houston, New York and even seven places in Louisiana have taken that proscription further, enacting local laws that prohibit smoking in workplaces including restaurants and bars, the foundation found.
Which means New Orleans is strolling into the anti-smoking movement at a late hour.
In a sense, when the City Council votes on the smoke-free ordinance, it will be considering whether to keep New Orleans on what is a dwindling list of places that still condone lighting up a cigarette in public places or to join a steadily growing campaign to extinguish the practice.
The council is scheduled to vote Thursday — though a delay is possible — on an ordinance that would make it illegal to smoke, with a few exceptions, in all enclosed public spaces, private clubs, correctional facilities and school buildings in the city. Smoking also would be prohibited in parks during public events sponsored by the city and outdoors within 25 feet of public property and within 5 feet of commercial buildings.
Although smoking in restaurants and most workplaces has been illegal in New Orleans since 2007 under the Louisiana Smoke-Free Air Act, residents and visitors still are free to smoke in casinos and in bars that are not attached to restaurants.
The new measure is sponsored by Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who revised her original ordinance earlier this month to remove a prohibition on smoking at all public events, in the common areas of apartment buildings, retirement homes and nursing facilities, and in cigar and hookah bars in existence before Jan. 8.
She is now under pressure by casinos and electronic cigarette supporters to remove gaming halls and the electronic smoking devices from the legislation, which is co-sponsored by Councilwoman Susan Guidry.
Violating the ban would carry a $100 fine for a first offense, plus up to $200 for a second offense and up to $500 for a third offense if those take place within 12 months of the first violation.
The first efforts to snuff out smoke in indoor spaces began about 50 years ago after the release of the first U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health. The landmark 1964 report officially recognized the harmful effects of cigarette smoking.
Today, 24 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, prohibit smoking in all workplaces outside the hospitality industry, plus in restaurants and bars. Another 11 , like Louisiana, have limited bans that include most workplaces but exclude bars, restaurants or both.
More than 500 casinos — though none in Louisiana or Nevada — have smoking bans that are either self-imposed or the result of a local or state law.
Only a handful of cities with smoking restrictions have repealed the bans after adoption.
The economic impact of such bans has been the subject of much debate in New Orleans, with critics of the prohibition saying they have sucked dollars from local communities elsewhere and supporters pointing out instances in which business has actually improved.
Last year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study estimating the impact that smoke-free air laws would have on economic outcomes in restaurants and bars in eight states without smoking bans: Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia. The report also examined the economic impact of a 2010 statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants in North Carolina.
With the exception of West Virginia, where the CDC estimated smoke-free laws would result in a 1 percent increase in restaurant employment, the study found “no significant association” between smoke-free laws and employment or sales in restaurants and bars in the states.
“Results suggest that smoke-free laws did not have an adverse economic impact on restaurants or bars in any of the states studied; they provided a small economic benefit in one state,” the CDC wrote.
Critics of the New Orleans proposal, including the Louisiana Restaurant Association and the Louisiana Casino Association, have nevertheless argued that a ban in New Orleans would depress casino revenue and tourism spending, thereby reducing the local tax dollars that go to paying for things like sanitation and police.
“Can this city and this state afford to have less money to do all the things that we need to do?” Logan Gaskill, vice president of human resources and community relations at Harrah’s New Orleans Casino, asked council members during a hearing this month.
Gaskill pointed to a study by a researcher from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, though not endorsed by the bank, which found that a smoking ban in Illinois casinos was responsible for a 20 percent, or $400 million, dip in casino revenue.
It is not yet clear how the council will vote. Cantrell appears to have at least three supporters for the measure, with Councilman James Gray likely to join Cantrell and Guidry in supporting the plan. The other members of the council have expressed various concerns about the financial hit the city might take from the prohibition, the impact it would have on small bars and the inclusion of e-cigarettes in the order.
Councilman Jason Williams said he will support the plan only if it is amended to remove the short-staffed New Orleans Police Department as enforcement agents.
“I’m inclined to (support it). For all intents and purposes I support what she’s trying to do,” Williams said. “But to me, with crime being what it is right now, that would be a deal breaker to require the NOPD to be involved in that in any kind of way.”