As the stroke of midnight neared Tuesday, more than two dozen Harrah’s Casino employees — some carrying white plastic cups filled with black sand, others holding purple bags containing Tootsie Pops — descended onto the casino floor to break the news to patrons.
“Harrah’s is now smoke-free,” they said as Wednesday arrived at the vast, windowless gambling hall. “May I ask that you put out your cigarette?”
Those patrons who complied were offered a Tootsie Pop in exchange for depositing their cigarette into a cup. Those who did not received a visit from a security guard.
A couple of miles away, bartenders at Mimi’s in the Marigny moved through the bar collecting ashtrays and apologetically asking a room full of puffing patrons to stub out the last cigarette they could legally smoke inside the bar.
Down the street, a handful of smokers stood outside the Lost Love Lounge, grumbling about what was repeatedly referred to as “the end of an era.”
With similar scenes at scores of other businesses, New Orleans’ bars and casinos went smoke-free Wednesday.
With the city’s “Smoke-Free Air Act” now in effect, it is illegal to smoke or use e-cigarettes in almost all indoor establishments. The ban contains exemptions only for existing cigar and hookah bars and for “vaping” at existing e-cigarette retailers.
The ban, passed by the City Council unanimously in January, has been hailed by supporters as an important step in protecting workers in the city’s service industry and performers at music clubs from the effects of secondhand smoke and as a way to bring New Orleans in line with other major cities that prohibit smoking in bars and other indoor public spaces.
Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who has led the charge to pass the ban since last summer, said at a news conference Wednesday morning that the city had taken a “bold step.”
“We’ve pulled ourselves up to be better than we were before,” she said, suggesting that New Orleans would be an inspiration to other cities throughout the state.
Just hours before New Orleans’ ordinance went into effect, Hammond passed its own smoking ban, bringing the total number of local governments in Louisiana with similar policies to nine.
City officials remain concerned that Harrah’s will try an end run around the ban. The casino and a number of French Quarter bars have sued the city to try to have the law thrown out on procedural grounds. Civil District Court Judge Nakisha Ervin-Knotts denied their request for an injunction to postpone the starting date of the ban until the case is settled, but the suit remains alive. A hearing is scheduled for next month.
The casino company also is trying to get state legislators to put pressure on the city to drop the ban, arguing that having to provide a smoke-free environment could cost the casino 20 percent of its business and cost the state millions of dollars in tax money.
Some council members said they suspect it’s not just Harrah’s and local bars pushing such measures, pointing to efforts by tobacco companies to push back against other anti-smoking ordinances.
“It’s the tobacco industry really, with the casino’s face,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry said.
City officials have countered that New Orleans stood to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity if doctors or other groups followed through on threats not to bring their conventions to the city unless it passed a smoking ban.
And, Guidry said, “It’s not about money. It’s about lives.”
About an hour before midnight, Harrah’s casino workers began posting signs alerting customers to the building’s imminent smoke-free status in the elevators in its parking garage and on the glass doors leading into the casino. Freestanding signs, about 6 feet tall, were placed in walkways through the casino.
Shortly before midnight arrived, teams of workers collected ashtrays from beside slot machines and around blackjack tables.
Workers were told not to offer patrons any opinion on the new ban as they enforced it.
Joe Brady, in town from Larose for the Zurich Classic, said he was less likely to visit the casino with the ban now in effect. Even though he managed to convince a Harrah’s employee to give him two Tootsie Pops in exchange for his one cigarette, he said the ban would diminish his enjoyment of the casino.
He said it takes about an hour to drive to downtown New Orleans from his home and two hours to drive to gambling halls on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where smoking is allowed.
“I think I’m going to leave because of this,” Brady said. “It will change my picking of the casino I go to.”
At the Marigny bars, patrons watched the time as they took their final drags, chatting animatedly about the details of the ban.
Many worried about how forcing smokers onto the streets would affect the bars, several of which have had run-ins with neighbors in the past over noise and are already on high alert to clamp down on noisy groups outside.
The city is still working out the details of how it will enforce the ban. For now, it will be the job of business owners to tell their patrons about the law and make sure they comply. The city also is accepting complaints to its website and 311 hotline.
City officials did not receive any complaints from the ban’s first night, Health Department Director Charlotte Parent said. The department is gearing up for a wave of complaints in the first few weeks, followed by a sharp decline, she said.
“The pattern with other cities is lots and lots of calls for the first month and then a precipitous drop,” she said.