Metro Council taking up smoking ban for Baton Rouge bars, casinos but will it to pass? _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- A bar patrons' lighter and cigarettes sit on the bar, Wednesday, January 27, 2016 at Phil Brady's Bar & Grill on Government Street in Baton Rouge, La.

A campaign to douse the cigarette smoke in Baton Rouge's bars and casinos reignited Wednesday, catching the support of Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, after a similar effort failed a year ago in the wake of strong opposition from the gaming industry.

East Baton Rouge Smoke Free Coalition members announced Wednesday that they will mount a second attempt to lobby Metro Council members to ban smoking in the city-parish's casinos and bars. Coalition spokeswoman Raegan Carter said they timed their efforts to coincide with the new mayor-president and Metro Council who were elected late last year.

"We've got 3,000 people that work in East Baton Rouge, that work in bars and casinos, and they're at risk because of this product," said Randy Hayden, a media consultant for the Smoke Free coalition that includes the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, Louisiana Public Health Institute and the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco Free Living.

"As a council person and you believe, 'part of my job is to protect my citizens' -- you've got to look at that seriously," Hayden said.

Broome supported the group's failed efforts last year while she was on the campaign trail. She said Wednesday that her support had not waivered and that they will stand behind the group as they ask the Metro Council to pass an ordinance banning smoking in bars and casinos, though the official request for the ordinance has not been made yet.

"Studies, including those conducted by the American Cancer Society, continue to show that second smoke poses many health risks," the mayor-president said in a statement. "We owe it to our citizens to provide safe work and leisurely environments."

Broome's predecessor, former Mayor-President Kip Holden, did not take a stand on the smoking ban last year when the Metro Council killed it on a 6-6 split vote. In order to be successful this time, advocates will need at least seven Metro Council members to give them a "yes" vote. The money City Hall depends on from casinos was a major sticking point with the proposition last year.

City Hall has budgeted receiving $9.5 million in gaming revenues this year from Baton Rouge's casinos, and the city-parish received $9.98 million from the casinos in 2016. Numbers from the Louisiana Gaming Control Board show that L'Auberge Casino and Hotel, the Belle of Baton Rouge and Hollywood Casino combined to pay $14.6 million in 2015-2016 in Baton Rouge local fees and property taxes. The majority of the money came from L'Auberge, which paid $7.2 million in local fees and $3.2 million in property taxes.

Casino executives were outspoken in their opposition to the proposed smoking ban last year and helped to kill it. They said a smoking ban would hurt their bottom lines, in turn affecting how much tax revenue they give to the city-parish and state. They said they would expect a 20 percent decrease in their revenue, which could also lead to employees losing their jobs.

L'Auberge's General Manager Mickey Parenton also told Metro Council members last year that he would move any employee who did not like the smoke on the game floor to a smoke-free part of the casino without a change in pay. A L'Auberge spokeswoman said Wednesday they did not have anything more to add after their public opposition last year, The Belle and Hollywood did not return messages, though representatives from both casinos argued against the ban last year.

"We believe both our customers and employees are educated and therefore able to choose for themselves the environment they wish to enter," said Louisiana Casino Association Executive Director Wade Duty in a statement Wednesday. "Despite the speculative claims of persons who promote smoking bans that such bans would actually increase the number of customers visiting casinos, real world experience in Colorado, Illinois, New Orleans and other locations which have imposed such bans in casinos clearly shows otherwise."

A March 2017 presentation by Caesars Entertainment Corporation to the Louisiana Riverboat Economic Development and Gaming Task Force blamed the 2015 smoke ban in New Orleans for a decline in revenue at the Harrah's New Orleans Casino. Caesars reported that Harrah's saw its revenue drop by $35 million in 2015, by $34 million in 2016 and anticipates a further $3 million drop in 2017.

But smoking ban advocates have argued that the smoking ban in New Orleans isn’t the reason business is off at Harrah’s. They point to a larger trend of revenue declines at Harrah's, as figures from the Louisiana Gaming Control Board show the casino had steady revenue declines from 2008 through 2011, while revenue was pretty flat in 2012 and 2013 with a slight bump in 2014.

Still, the losses at Harrah's have been the sharpest and most dramatic over the past three years. Based Gaming Control Board figures going back to 2006, 2016 was the first time in the 10 year span that Harrah's saw its annual revenue dip below $300 million.

Hayden said he hopes council members do not buy into casino's complaints about possible revenue losses.

"If they want to go dollar for dollar, their losses pale in comparison to the expenses taxpayers are paying for tobacco related incidents," Hayden said, pointing out that Louisiana spends $1.2 billion annually on tobacco related illnesses.

At least two new Metro Council members say they support the idea of banning smoking in bars and casinos, while their predecessors on the Metro Council voted against the ban last year. Republican Matt Watson, who replaced Ryan Heck, said he supports the ban in concept but that he needs to see the specifics of the proposed ordinance to know whether it is more palatable to council members than last year's version.

And Republican Barbara Freiberg, who replaced John Delgado, said she favors the ban.

"Health concerns are paramount in this state and this is one step in the right direction of what needs to be done to improve the quality of life in this city and in this state," she said.

All five of the Metro Council's Democrats who voted in support of the ordinance last year are back on the council for another term.

But some of the Republicans who voted against the ban the first time say they haven’t been swayed since then. Buddy Amoroso, who voted against the ban last year, said he's not ready yet to commit to voting one way or another on the ordinance but said he continues to have some "philosophical beliefs" that differ from the ordinance.

And Trae Welch said he expects to vote against the ordinance for a second time. He said he would be more open to creating a ballot proposition that allows East Baton Rouge voters to determine whether to ban smoking in casinos and bars.

"I have a problem with banning substances that are legal," Welch said. "If this is something that the Legislature needs to deal with and ban tobacco products, then that's something at the Legislature. But to always tell businesses what they can and can't do....last time it was so far-reaching."

In Lafayette, the City-Parish Council voted in April to ban smoking in bars after an unsuccessful campaign to do so in 2015. Carter said she hopes Baton Rouge is paying attention.

"With Baton Rouge being the Capital City, we would certainly hope that we would recognize other major cities in Louisiana are recognizing the importance," she said.

Follow Andrea Gallo on Twitter, @aegallo.​