A proposed ban on smoking in New Orleans bars and casinos could be law by the end of the month, but local officials, business owners and other observers say questions remain about how the controversial measure would be enforced.
Proponents of the ordinance, which was introduced with much fanfare by New Orleans City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell in November, contend that smoking in bars represents a bygone era and that the restriction would simply bring the city in line with the rest of the country in trying to limit exposure to secondhand smoke.
But some residents and many bar owners — who recently fought off attempts to place more stringent caps on sound levels pouring out of their establishments — say the proposal infringes on their right to set their own rules.
Though many admit that smoking in public places is probably on its way out in any case, they object to local government intruding on decisions they believe should be left up to them, framing the proposal as part of a larger movement to chip away at the city’s famed tolerance for minor vices in the name of improving public safety or promoting a better quality of life.
The proposed law stipulates that the city’s Health Department would have the primary responsibility for enforcing the ban, with a host of other departments — such as police, fire and parks — providing the muscle.
The ordinance says bar employees would have the first duty to tell patrons to stop smoking. If they don’t, the bar can refuse service and ask the person to leave. If that fails, the bar can call police.
The Health Department would initially count on bar owners to voluntarily comply with the new law. After that, warnings and fines could follow.
For an owner, flouting the law and allowing smoking indoors would carry up to a $100 fine for the initial offense and double that for a second offense within 12 months. Fines could reach $500 for each additional offense in the same year.
Smokers, meanwhile, could be hit with a $50 fine.
In recent weeks, many bar owners seemed unfazed by the possibility the ordinance will pass, with some noting that they saw little change after similar talk at the state level over the last decade. The 2007 law making Louisiana the 19th state to prohibit smoking in many public places, including restaurants, gave local municipalities and parishes the right to set their own smoking restrictions. Several cities, including Alexandria and Monroe, have chosen to ban it at bars.
Adding to outdoors noise?
In her effort to snuff out smoking at bars and casinos in New Orleans, Cantrell has stressed the need to protect the health of workers and of the musicians who play at such venues.
She notes that Louisiana ranks among the states with the highest number of residents dying annually of cancer. She also disputes arguments made by some bar owners that they’ll lose business because of the ban, noting that in New Orleans customers can pour a drink into a go-cup before stepping outside for a cigarette.
But the prospect of having people loitering outside late at night to smoke and perhaps drink worries owners of some bars tucked away in residential neighborhoods.
“It’s the city that’s putting this rule in place, and they’re putting more of these quality-of-life issues on the table without a real good solution to the problems that are going to arise out of them,” said Bill Walker, who has co-owned the Lost Love Lounge in the Marigny since 2010.
Walker is in the awkward position of also serving as the head of One Marigny, a neighborhood association.
Cantrell told The New Orleans Advocate last week that she has a solution for that, too: She plans to revive discussion on New Orleans’ seemingly dormant noise ordinance once work on the smoking ban is finished.
“It’s kind of like having to vet it again with the new members of the council,” she said about the proposed noise ordinance, which drew widespread criticism and prompted a parade of musicians to storm the council chamber a year ago to voice their disapproval. “But I think a lot of work went into that, and that’s why I feel like we’ve got to pick it back up, because of the work, and we’ve got to finish the job on that.”
In the meantime, a five-member City Council committee last week moved forward with the smoking ban after a nearly three-hour meeting at which more than 150 people sought a chance to speak on the topic.
The measure appears to have the backing of a majority of council members, Cantrell said. Another public meeting on the proposal is slated for 5 p.m. Wednesday in the council chamber, and the council seems likely to vote on the issue Jan. 22.
E-cigarettes’ status uncertain
A handful of changes have been made to the 25-page ordinance since it was introduced. It still would prohibit smoking in enclosed public spaces, private clubs, correctional facilities and schools, but now cigarettes also would be off-limits in parks during city-sponsored events and within 25 feet of public property and 5 feet of commercial buildings.
Cantrell has removed a prohibition on smoking at all public events and in the common areas of apartment buildings, retirement homes and nursing facilities. Existing cigar and hookah bars also could be grandfathered in under the new law.
Additional changes will likely be discussed, including easing restrictions on electronic cigarettes, which are treated as traditional cigarettes under the measure.
“I’m not hoping for e-cigarettes in bars,” Cantrell said. “We’ll see. It’s not going to come from me, but you know I want to get this thing done, and I’m still open to amendments from my colleagues.”
Council President Stacy Head, who voted in favor of the legislation at the committee meeting, is “supportive of the concept” of the measure, but said in an interview that she thinks some key details still need to be resolved.
More than a year ago, the city budgeted money to hire three or four staffers to monitor quality-of-life issues for the Health Department. Those staffers have never been hired, but the positions could soon be filled to help enforce the new smoking ban, as well as potentially to enforce yet-to-be adopted crackdowns on sound levels or illegal short-term rentals.
“I wish they would’ve been hired a long time ago, so that we could see what the capacity is in real life,” Head said. “I don’t think you can necessarily tell until you have people on the ground working.”
Head said that such a modest contingent is “not nearly enough.”
Cantrell, though, believes the small group would represent a good first step and is optimistic they could be hired by the time the ordinance takes effect, which would likely happen 90 days following the council’s approval.
“What I don’t want to have happen,” she said, “is that we create the law and then we’re not ready to enforce it. I think if the capacity building is aligned with the effective date, then we’re able to move right in.”
The Nola Patrol, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s initiative to launch an unarmed civilian police to back up law enforcement in the French Quarter, also would be used to enforce the ban if necessary.
Though the City Council has signed off on the 50-person squad, it’s unclear how soon it’ll be ready to help enforce traffic, zoning and other rules in the Quarter. A Landrieu spokesman did not return a call for comment last week.
Loss of license possible
Meanwhile, bar owners not following the law will have larger concerns than a fine: They’ll face the prospect of losing their alcohol license after repeated violations, Cantrell said. That language is still being drafted for addition to the ordinance. “They need to know that if they have been warned and even cited ample times, then that can lead to their license being revoked,” she said.
Though the Police Department may have a role in enforcing the smoking ban, Cantrell said she is also working on rules to make sure it “isn’t a (mandate) for NOPD to see somebody smoking and then use force for that.”
Still, Walker, the Marigny bar owner, is skeptical that the city will be able to properly enforce the ban if it’s approved, especially if doing so relies on a depleted police force.
“If the city comes to me and says, ‘Look, we’ve got a plan, this is how it’s going to work, everything’s going to go great,’ and they actually implement the law as it should be, then fantastic; I’ll be the first one to say that I was wrong and the city did a good job,” he said. “There haven’t been a lot of times when something like that has happened, though.”
Some residents are also worried.
“Frankly, I think that it’s going to push a lot more noise out onto the street, because people are going to smoke and you know, where else are they going to do it?” said Bill Dunn, who has lived near the Tulane University campus for almost 30 years. “We already have noise problems in some neighborhoods. People that live near places that used to be restaurants that suddenly turned into bars, and they didn’t buy a house next to a bar on purpose.”
But others don’t expect a lot of extra noise from a few more smokers hanging around outside.
“I would think that you would probably have some minimal increase, but I don’t really see that as being an issue now,” said Keith Hardie, president of Maple Area Residents Inc., a Carrollton neighborhood association whose area includes many bars and restaurants popular among college students.
When Tulane and Loyola are in session, Hardie said, the area is usually pretty busy anyway, especially on weekends.
“On those nights, you’re probably going to have some more people out there, but whether that’s going to significantly increase the noise, I don’t know,” he said. “If it does, I guess, the city would have to look at ways of control those issues.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.