The New Orleans City Council is expected vote next week on a controversial ordinance that would prohibit smoking in local barrooms and casinos will answer the question of what the members value more highly: the right of residents to breathe clean air or the right of businesses to operate as they choose.
At least that’s what the discussion largely boiled down to Wednesday evening during a town hall meeting on the measure being pushed by Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell.
In the council’s second public airing of comments on the topic, business owners said the ordinance would infringe on their right to operate freely and would hurt their revenue.
Proponents of the ban, mostly health professionals and musicians who now must perform in smoke-filled environments, said the council has an obligation to consider the health impact of secondhand smoke on people who work in casinos and bars.
Harrah’s New Orleans Casino employees represented a sizable portion of the people who spoke out against the ban.
“I think it’s a choice,” Harrah’s employee John Moore said. He said customers and potential employees should choose to avoid Harrah’s in favor of smoke-free facilities if they are offended by smoke. Meanwhile, he said, Harrah’s “should be allowed to choose what they are going to do.”
Expressing the sentiment of many proponents, Tonia Moore, of the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco Free Living, said the ban would create a healthier work environment for more than 5,000 people who work in the potentially affected facilities.
Cantrell’s ordinance would make it illegal, with a few exceptions, to smoke 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.
The ordinance would grandfather in existing cigar and hookah bars — businesses with the sole purpose of selling smoking devices and providing a place for them to be used.
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 law also would prohibit electronic cigarettes in the same places as tobacco, and that provision turned out nearly a dozen opponents.
Electronic cigarette fans pushed Cantrell to remove those devices from the ban, with several saying they would support the ordinance except for the e-cigarette restrictions.
If the ordinance is geared toward protecting the health of residents, it should not include electronic cigarettes because there is no proof that e-cigarette vapor has the same unhealthy effects as secondhand tobacco smoke, said Anthony Kolesa, who owns Smokecignals, which operates a store in Hollygrove.
“We feel like we’re a separate entity from cigarettes,” Kolesa said. “You could quite quickly have the backing of several of us by eliminating us from this ban.”
Allowing e-cigarettes, their proponents said, actually could help the council with its goal of reducing smoking in public places by weaning smokers away from tobacco products.
“If you truly want to see smoking in your city coming to an end, then get out of the way of people making a difference,” said Marcus Campo, who owns Big Chief Vapor Products.
The town hall meeting drew a large crowd to the council chamber, including many employees from both Harrah’s and the New Orleans Fair Grounds.
There was no voting at the meeting. It was held only for the purpose of accepting public comment. Five council members — Cantrell, Jason Williams, Jared Brossett, Nadine Ramsey and ordinance co-sponsor Susan Guidry — were in attendance, though only Cantrell and Guidry made it through the full meeting.
A council committee voted 3-2 last week to send the controversial ordinance to the full council following a nearly three-hour meeting that filled the council chamber to capacity. The seven-member panel will consider the ban at its meeting on Jan. 22.