After drawing the ire of many Bourbon Street bars and clubs, the grumbling has largely died down in the six months since New Orleans’ controversial smoking ban took hold.
Smokers have apparently accepted the new normal — no citations have been issued so far — while bar owners are still assessing its impact to sales and casino officials are counting their winnings.
For a measure that sought to bring the city in line with the rest of the country, the proposal last year set off a heated debate that its opponents framed as an ongoing struggle to balance New Orleans’ famed tolerance for minor vice against calls for improving safety and a better quality of life for residents.
While many bar owners argued that their profits would suffer, the law’s backers contended that wasn’t likely because New Orleans is in a unique position where patrons can pour their drink into a go-cup and head outside for a quick cigarette.
So far, the city has yet to issue a fine over the law, said Charlotte Parent, director of the Health Department.
About 33 businesses were reported for violations, and four received a second notice. But subsequent inspections either brought them into compliance or turned up no signs of smoking.
One of the ban’s loudest opponents was Harrah’s Casino New Orleans, which initially joined ranks with French Quarter bars and restaurants in an unsuccessful legal battle to strike down the ban before it was set to take effect. Harrah’s withdrew from the lawsuit.
Since April, Harrah’s casino winnings are down about $11.8 million compared with the same period last year, when the land-based casino won about $165.1 million, state records show.
Harrah’s officials draw more than a casual connection to the smoking ban.
“We expected that, over time, our revenues would decline as experienced in other gaming jurisdictions when a smoking ban has been implemented,” said Dan Real, Southern regional president for Caesars Entertainment and senior vice president and general manager for Harrah’s New Orleans. “This has, in fact, proven to be true and we have seen a revenue decline within the range predicted. By comparison, casinos in neighboring Jefferson Parish and the state of Mississippi have experienced commensurate revenue increases.”
Harrah’s recent revenues were buoyed by a big July, which was up 26 percent. Harrah’s took in almost $36 million in winnings that month, compared with $28.5 million in July 2014.
Otherwise, Harrah’s haul has risen just once since the ban. In September, revenue rose 2 percent, netting the casino $24.5 million, or about $500,000 more than 2014.
Tied to Harrah’s fiscal health is the fate of potentially hundreds of local jobs that hang in the balance.
The casino’s lobbyists in Baton Rouge spent the past legislative session warning that it could lose 20 percent of its business due to the ban, which would ultimately mean fewer tax dollars for the state’s coffers.
Under its gaming license, Harrah’s is required to maintain a set number of employees, and casino officials have argued that figure should be reduced by 400 workers in light of changing industry trends, including the smoking prohibition.
That would mean cutting about 17 percent of its 2,400 positions, according to some estimates.
In a recent economic outlook report for the region, economist Loren Scott noted the dilemma facing the region with the potential job losses looming.
That would have a big impact in a region that Scott forecasts will experience “meager growth” in 2016, adding 2,900 jobs, an increase of 0.5 percent, and another 5,100 jobs in 2017.
Scott predicted that the casino may file a lawsuit against the city to lower the employment minimum. Real said that option is not on the table right now.
Instead, Harrah’s is taking other measures, including plans to build two outdoor courtyards for smokers that would include slot machines and add 1,350 square feet to the downtown casino.
The casino has applied to amend its conditional-use permit to build the smoking areas, which would be near its entrances on Convention Center Boulevard and South Peters Street. The request hasn’t been heard yet by the City Planning Commission.
Rather than turn to litigation, Real said, Harrah’s intends to work with the city to promote the facility as “the best smoke-free casino in the South.”
“If, in the future, the state approves a reduction to Harrah’s mandatory head count, Harrah’s is committed to implementing any such reduction through attrition with absolutely no layoffs,” Real said.
Sending perhaps a conflicting signal, Harrah’s held a job fair last month, looking to fill various positions at its casino, hotel and restaurant.
Still, some legislators expect discussions will soon pick up about reducing the job minimum.
“I think now is the time to be having conversations about these things before we head into a legislative session,” said state Rep. Walt Leger III, a New Orleans Democrat. “They certainly make an interesting argument.”
Leger sees both sides of the issue.
“I’ve been to Harrah’s lately. To me, it’s a much more welcoming place now that there isn’t smoke there,” he said. “At the same time, from a revenue standpoint, I can see the concerns that the businesses have.”
Meanwhile, assessing the ban’s impact to the coffers of bar owners has been a little hazier.
While some sales are down somewhat, they’ve instead focused on what they view as the law’s unintended consequences, like more loitering outside by bar patrons as well as workers sneaking a smoke during a shift.
“You can say what you want about Bourbon Street, but that’s not a very good idea for employees to be off premises on a very busy street that has a lot of drunk people,” said Alex Fein, owner of the historic Court of Two Sisters restaurant in the 600 block of Royal Street.
Fein, who serves as president of the French Quarter Business League, still hears bar owners grumble that the ban has hurt their sales, but it’s started to fade.
“We wish it were different,” he said, “but it’s one of those things that you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do.”
Ironically, in the small six-stool bar on Bourbon Street adjacent to the restaurant, sales are up by about 15 percent in the past few months. Maybe it’s because bar patrons are spending more time moving from one place to the next, he speculated. “It’s the perfect spot to walk in, have a drink and leave,” he said.
Though a smaller hit to his bottom line , James “Trey” Monaghan, whose family owns Molly’s at the Market in the 1100 block of Decatur Street, has seen his cigarette sales fall about 15 percent from a year ago.
Bar sales are slightly off, too, but it’s hard to tell if it’s due to the ban.
“I know plenty of people that don’t smoke and so they’re happy that they can go out and they’re not going to smell like smoke at the end of the night, but that wouldn’t stop them from going out before,” he said.
The biggest change, Monaghan said, is that more patrons are now drinking in Molly’s courtyard bar in the back, where smoking is allowed.
“The reality is that I haven’t seen this huge difference,” he said of his recent sales.
A critic of the ban, Monaghan also believes the law has caused other quality-of-life issues.
He’s seeing more people hang outside to smoke and chat and head back inside when they need a refill.
“As long as I’ve been alive, the noise in the French Quarter has been some major problem that everyone needs to solve,” he said, “and what they’ve done is they’ve created a louder French Quarter.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.