The finer points of the smoking ban in New Orleans may remain to be worked out, but that’s jake with City Council President Stacy Head.
There will be plenty of time to tweak it before it goes into effect, Head noted several times during a raucous public hearing at which the ordinance was amended some 100 times. By then, council members must have been somewhat hazy about what is in it.
But they are not slaves to the convention that says legislators should be sure they have it right, and give the public a chance to figure out what is afoot, before they vote.
Although this ordinance passed unanimously, the first tweak followed immediately, when Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey up and filed an exemption for the Harrah’s casino in New Orleans. This made it all the harder to understand why the council moved at the speed normally associated with an emergency, as though the news had just reached Louisiana that tobacco can be hazardous to health.
This was a short-lived tweak, however, and Ramsey withdrew her proposal within days, presumably on grounds that it made zero sense. Having just declared that secondhand smoke in bars and casinos was injurious to health, or even lethal, the council could not conceivably have opted for selective enforcement. Harrah’s, of course, is against the ban because it figures its profits will suffer, but the council evidently believes the welfare of its patrons and employees takes priority.
What got into Ramsey’s head is a mystery. She says it was all a misunderstanding, and she was under the impression Mayor Mitch Landrieu had asked her to propose an ordinance allowing Harrah’s to keep letting gamblers smoke in half of its casino. Landrieu, who has always been for a ban, said no such request had been made.
That was a hell of a misunderstanding. It is hard to imagine that anyone from the administration made a chance remark that could have been misconstrued as a invitation to gut the most ballyhooed ordinance in a long time. Perhaps it was all a dream.
Ramsey now says she will be re-examining the ordinance, while the administration also says it needs time to consider the implications of all those amendments.
Perhaps we were late to join the anti-tobacco crusade, but, having survived this long, we surely could have spared a few weeks for mature consideration of how the ban will work before imposing it. Most people are never exposed to smoke involuntarily these days anyway, even if they want to hoist a few and hear some funky sounds; plenty of bars and music venues offer uncontaminated air in response to popular demand.
Until the council decided adults could no longer be trusted to make up their own minds, a civilized accommodation was evolving whereby citizens could choose between establishments that are free of smoke and establishments that are free from the dictates of puritan busybodies. But the prohibitionist tide has grown irresistible.
Now that the council has decided it knows what’s best for everybody, we must wait to be told exactly how this ordinance will achieve it. Its main provisions are clear enough, however, and the gambling industry is uniformly aghast, figuring the suckers will migrate to the smoky joints that dot Jefferson Parish and the Mississippi coast.
It has been suggested by proponents of the ordinance that the traffic will be the other way around, and gamblers will flock to the city so they can breathe easier. Research cited by casino operators suggests that they are wrong, and that smoking bans elsewhere have depressed business. New Orleans government, they say, will suffer a huge loss of tax revenue.
They may well overstate the case, since money not spent in casinos will still be spent on some other taxable diversion, and the council evidently believes the health of patrons and employees trumps any financial risk. That risk happens to be greatest in the case of Harrah’s, for its lease provides for a reduction in its payments to the city if a change in the law reduces its revenues. Harrah’s estimates of the potential loss in sales taxes and lease payments ranges from about $4 million to $14 million a year.
But whatever tweaks lie ahead will not be on that account, so far as we can tell.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.