That was a common refrain heard in smoky barrooms across New Orleans last week as talk turned to the potential smoking ban expected to be introduced at the City Council’s meeting Thursday.
“If and when they get it passed, by all means, no smoking in bars,” Buffa’s co-owner Adam Rogers said between puffs Friday afternoon. “It’ll be a tough transition, but I’ve already done it for restaurants that I’ve worked in.”
Tom Taylor, 57, stood behind the bar, his pack of cigarettes and lighter positioned in front of him.
“I, personally, don’t frequent any place that doesn’t allow smoking,” he said. “I don’t go in. It’s almost like we’re two different species: one that is tolerant and one that is extremely intolerant.”
In a move that’s expected to set off a major debate, Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell plans to introduce legislation this week that would prohibit smoking in local barrooms and casinos — a step toward better health that scores of U.S. cities have taken in recent years but one that will no doubt stir controversy here.
It will come not long after lengthy, heated disputes have played out at City Hall over sound limits and T-shirt shops in the French Quarter and even claims that city officials were trying to do away with go-cups, those symbols of the city’s entrenched drinking culture. In each case, such contentions have pitted the city’s famed tolerance for vice against calls for increased safety and a better quality of life for residents.
In the seven years since Louisiana became the 19th state to mostly prohibit smoking at the state level, including in restaurants, state lawmakers have tried several times to ban it at bars and casinos, but to no avail. However, the 2007 law gave local municipalities and parishes the option to set their own provisions for regulating smoking, and several cities, including Alexandria and Monroe, have chosen to snuff out smoking at bars on their own.
In an effort to study the effects of secondhand smoke, Daniel Harrington, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans, has measured air quality levels at local bars that allow and prohibit smoking. His research concluded that the air in nonsmoking bars was 24 times cleaner than at places that allowed smoking. Of the places he measured, 68 percent of smoking venues had air quality levels that were considered unhealthy.
Now Cantrell, whose district includes the Central Business District and Central City, hopes to change that. In her first two years in office, she has made her stance against smoking well-known. At a council meeting earlier this year, she recognized several bar owners who voluntarily banned smoking.
Her new rules are set to receive a first reading at Thursday’s council meeting, with debate to follow over the next few months. She hopes to put the proposal to a vote by the end of March. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has said he supports the idea.
A host of reasons have led Cantrell to this point, she said. For one, she points to Louisiana’s rank among the states with the highest numbers of residents dying annually of cancer. With new multibillion-dollar medical facilities set to open in New Orleans in the coming years, she said, the city should be seen as a leader in promoting healthier lifestyles.
Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that about 21 percent of Louisiana residents 18 and older are cigarette smokers, good for No. 37 highest among the states. An estimated 35,000 nonsmokers die from coronary heart disease in the U.S. each year as a result of exposure to secondhand smoke, according to the CDC.
Colleges going smoke-free
In recent months, nearly all colleges and university campuses in New Orleans have gone tobacco-free or are taking steps in that direction. Public colleges across Louisiana were required to go smoke-free Aug. 1 under a law passed by the Legislature last year, aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles and cutting down on secondhand smoke exposure.
“We have the fabric to be great and build this (health care) industry, and I just don’t see how we can do that when we have laws on the books where we’re still allowing people to smoke in public environments and in public spaces,” Cantrell said in an interview Friday.
She said smoking in bars is a holdover from a different age, and that it can harm the health of bar and casino workers as well as the city’s famed musicians who play at such venues.
She disputes the argument that businesses will suffer financially from a ban, instead contending that New Orleans is in a unique position because bar patrons can pour their drink into a go-cup and go outside for a quick cigarette fix.
Plus, she believes musicians who don’t smoke will benefit, since “their bodies are their instruments.” Looking out for them should be a top priority, she said, because they’re largely what’s fueling local tourism.
“They’re not coming to drink a drink,” Cantrell said of tourists who descend upon the Crescent City. “They’re coming to listen to our musicians and really enjoy the fabric of our city.”
Her proposal, however, has drawn the ire of many of the same Bourbon Street bars and clubs that fought attempts all year to place more stringent caps on the decibel levels pouring out of their establishments.
Chris Young, an attorney representing the French Quarter Business League, which represents dozens of French Quarter establishments, said the proposal would infringe on the rights of business owners to set their own rules. Though smoking in bars and casinos is probably on its way out in any case, Young said, he objects to local government intruding on decisions that should be made by businesses and individual customers.
“The majority of them are going to be nonsmoking on their own anyway,” he said of local bar owners. “That’s the way it should happen, in their opinion, because it should be a business decision made in conjunction with the business’ customers.”
More important issues?
That is the attitude of trombone player Glen David Andrews, long a fixture performing at the city’s bars and clubs.
Andrews, a vocal critic of the city’s now-withdrawn sound ordinance, said he thinks the council should be focusing its attention on other matters, like fixing potholes or lowering water bills.
“One of the reasons you go to the damn bar is so you can smoke and drink,” he said. “I’m an occasional smoker myself, but at the same time, I have a lot of friends that work in bars, and I do understand that secondhand smoke. It’s kind of like six on one hand, a half-dozen on the other, but my personal feeling is that New Orleans has way more important issues they should be tackling than this.”
He believes the decision should be left up to business owners. “Honestly, I feel it’s your right to do whatever you want to do, however you want to do it, and if somebody chooses to have a nonsmoking club, then that’s cool with me,” he said.
A smoker himself, Stafford Agee, a trombonist with the Rebirth Brass Band, also contends the decision should be left up to a business’ owners. “You might have a club owner that sits in his club everyday and all day, and he don’t do nothing but sit at the bar and smoke cigarettes, so how can you tell a person that owns this place, they pay taxes on this place, that they can’t smoke in their own building?” he said. “That’s like telling him you can’t smoke in your own house.”
Trumpeter and singer Jeremy Davenport, though, said he’s thankful to perform most nights in a venue that’s smoke-free, a club bearing his name at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
“In the beginning of my career, I’m old enough that I can remember playing in smoky places,” he said. “I’ve never been a smoker, so I was always super-sensitive to smoke.” After a while, playing in smoky bars took its toll, he said. “You start to feel scratchy a couple hours in,” he said. “The part that I could never get over, or used to, was you get home and the smell of your clothes. You realize how much it’s just permeating everything that was in the room. You can only imagine what that’s doing to your lungs.”
Still, Davenport acknowledged, change never comes easy. “New Orleans is stubborn,” he said. “It doesn’t like to change a lot of things, for good and bad, and this is just one of those things. We need to modernize and get with the rest of the world.”
Bars acting on their own
Cantrell, for her part, contends that those saying a ban on smoking in bars would be an attack on the city’s culture are “short-sighted.”
“The fact that this is ‘our way’ — our way has been that our people are leading the national average in coronary disease,” she said. “That’s not attacking the smoker. A smoker has the right to smoke in their own environment, their own personal environment, but when you light up where other people who don’t smoke are around, then I think it infringes upon their freedoms, as well.”
Across the city, the number of bars and clubs that have prohibited smoking on their own has risen steadily in the past few years, industry observers say, with more than 100 likely now falling in that category.
Howlin’ Wolf owner Howie Kaplan began prohibiting smoking inside his club more than two years ago. He took the step on his own after efforts in the Legislature to ban smoking in clubs failed. “I was tired of coming home smelling like smoke,” he said. “I get it: I’ve been in the bar business my whole life, but the impetus behind it was asking musicians what they wanted.”
Kaplan noted that the smoking ban — an idea perhaps hard to imagine a decade ago — was easier to impose after other bars and clubs paved the way. “We’ve always kind of left it up to the artists individually, but it was easier to do it once a lot of the places started doing it,” he said.
Cooter Brown’s tavern in the Riverbend neighborhood followed suit on Jan. 1. Jonathan Junca, the manager, said the decision was made after the bar’s longtime owner, Larry Berestitzky, received word from his doctor to avoid secondhand smoke.
“He was told, ‘Don’t be in a smoking environment,’ ” Junca said. “It was always a smoking bar, but based on that, he said, ‘OK, well, I’m here everyday, so I’m going to make it nonsmoking.’ ”
A nuisance to neighbors?
Helping to make the transition easier, he said, is the fact that customers can light up at one of several picnic tables outside the bar. A television was installed in the outside wall so smokers can step out without missing the game.
“People were saying it was going to be bad for us, but I haven’t noticed really any drop-off” in business, Junca said. “You get a lot of compliments off of it. You get people that come in and say, ‘I didn’t like coming in before because it was so smoky,’ ” he said. “It’s pretty nice.”
At the Milan Lounge, bartender Tony Roth had his own worries, though it wasn’t about not being able to smoke during his shift if the new rules are passed.
Instead, Roth, 42, said he worries that having people standing outside late at night to smoke might become a nuisance to neighbors.
“Where are they going to go?” he said about his customers spilling onto the sidewalk for a quick cigarette. “You can already take your drinks outside, and you can take your phone calls outside. What am I going to have: 10, 12, 15 people walk outside at 4 o’clock in the morning? We have neighbors that we try to be respectful to.”
Nearby, regular patron William Fogus said that based on what he’s seen living in other cities that banned smoking in bars — Chicago, Cleveland, New York — it’s unlikely any such regulation will alter the bar-going habits of regular smokers used to their favorite neighborhood watering holes.
“People will stand out in the bitter cold of winter and have that cigarette,” Fogus, 33, said, “whether it’s a two-puff or a five-puff or they suck the thing down as fast as they can.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.