A New Orleans City Council committee voted 3-2 Wednesday to move forward with a controversial ordinance that would prohibit smoking in local barrooms and casinos.
At the conclusion of a meeting that lasted nearly three hours and filled the council chambers to capacity, the Community Development Committee voted to send the matter to the full council for consideration.
Although the proposal is on the agenda for Thursday’s council meeting, Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who introduced the measure, said it will not be heard that soon.
All seven council members were present for the committee meeting, but only the five committee members were allowed to vote.
Although the measure didn’t win unanimous approval, most members appeared to support the ban. For instance, Councilman James Gray, who along with Councilman Jason Williams voted against the measure, said he likely will vote in favor of it when it goes before the full council.
Gray said he was withholding his support at this stage because he wanted the matter deferred until some of his questions about the potential economic impact of the ban are answered.
More than 150 people filled out cards requesting to speak on the issue Wednesday.
Proponents of the ban said they want a safer environment for service workers and entertainers at local bars and restaurants. Musicians, including Deacon John and Irvin Mayfield, offered their support.
On the other hand, several French Quarter business owners and the casino industry said the ban would cut into their revenue.
Others argued that individual business owners should be able to decide whether their establishments allow smoking, and that employees of those businesses can make their own decisions about whether to work there or at smoke-free venues.
The public hearing also drew a contingent of individuals and business owners who oppose the ban because it would include electronic cigarettes.
Cantrell’s ordinance 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.
Cantrell revised her original ordinance to remove a prohibition on smoking at all public events and in the common areas of apartment buildings, retirement homes and nursing facilities.
The ordinance that will go before the council also includes a provision that 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.
Opponents, including the Louisiana Restaurant Association, the Louisiana Casino Association, the Louisiana Amusement and Music Operators Association and Unite Here, an organization representing some hospitality industry workers, said any ban on smoking would cause a drop in business revenue, employee wages and city coffers as potential patrons would choose to drink and gamble in more smoker-friendly parishes or states.
Casino revenue would drop 20 percent over two years if the ban is enacted, said Matt Wellman, vice president of the Amusement and Music Operators Association, a trade group that represents coin-operated amusement game and video poker operators. He cited a recently released study by the Louisiana State Police.
“You may not care about that. But you may care that a large portion of that revenue goes to the District Attorney’s Office. And are we really in a position to start cutting the criminal justice system employees in Orleans Parish at this point?” Wellman asked. “If you want to be realistic and honest with the public, this smoking ban should have a tax increase as a part of it, because you’ll have to make up for the lost revenue somehow.”
Logan Gaskill, vice president of human resources and community relations at Harrah’s New Orleans Casino, said a smoking ban would chip away at the income of Harrah’s employees because it would reduce the number of people who patronize the state’s only full-fledged land casino and one of the city’s largest employers, thereby cutting into employees’ potential to earn tips and work more hours.
Other opponents said the city should stay out of the affairs of business owners.
Alex Fine, owner of the Court of Two Sisters in the French Quarter and president of the French Quarter Business League, said owners should have the right to decide for themselves whether to operate smoke-free establishments and patrons and employees should then decide which businesses they want to support.
Fine said French Quarter businesses also are concerned about the loss of revenue a smoking ban might bring. Businesses already are seeing a loss of revenue because of a recent uptick in crime, he said.
“We feel that this extra burden of lost revenue at this time would be a little bit too much to take,” Fine said. “We just feel like we’ve been through so much and we’ve fought through so much. When does it stop?”
Supporters, however, called the ban a humanitarian, public safety and health issue. In addition to health agencies, the ban is supported by many local musicians.
Singer and songwriter Paul Sanchez said musicians hoping to get established on the local music scene don’t have a choice of what venues to play. Instead, he said, they take all the gigs they can just to make ends meet.
“We don’t get to send our résumés to a CEO and wait for a good bonus package,” Sanchez said. “We just try to keep our hustle alive.”
Singer and musician John Moore, better known as Deacon John, was brought to tears as he recalled the deaths of friends and fellow musicians he said have died from “the detrimental effects” of secondhand smoke.
“I am extremely concerned about the health risks of people who must work in bars, lounges, casinos and venues that expose them to the environment of secondhand smoke,” Moore said. “These are the bartenders, waiters, the dancers, the musicians and other persons who work in the service industry. My primary concern is the health of these people who are the backbone of the businesses who contribute to the economy of our city.”
Trombonist Craig Klein told the council he was feeling the effects of performing for two straight nights in smoky bars.
“My coat is in my backyard airing out, but I can’t air out my lungs,” he said.
The same concerns were raised by the American Lung Association and speakers representing the LSU Health Sciences Center and Ochsner Health System.
A majority of the council members appear to support the ban. Councilwoman Susan Guidry is a co-sponsor of the measure. Council President Stacy Head called it a generally “great package,” though she expressed some concerns about enforcement and the all-out ban on electronic cigarettes. Head said she also wanted Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration to provide an estimate of the potential revenue loss such a ban would generate. Cantrell, Guidry and Head were the three committee members who voted in favor of the legislation.
Although Gray and Williams voted against the ordinance, Gray said he is unlikely to change his plan to vote in favor of the ban later, but he requested more data about the potential economic impact. Likewise, Williams asked that the matter be deferred so that the council could better understand how a ban would affect the city’s budget.
Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey hinted she probably will support the measure. Councilman Jared Brossett did not indicate how he will vote.