Half of the Metro Council has co-sponsored an ordinance to ban smoking in bars and casinos in East Baton Rouge Parish, but it remains to be seen whether the proposal will gain the final vote needed to pass.
Before the council convened Wednesday, proponents of the ban gathered outside City Hall to speak in support of the measure, which was introduced at the meeting that followed. The council is expected to vote on the matter April 13. Council members Chauna Banks-Daniel, Donna Collins-Lewis, Erika Green, LaMont Cole, Joel Boé and Tara Wicker are the co-sponsors.
Hospital officials have decried the “devastating” effect of secondhand smoke, which harms even those who do not light up. However, a casino official has said bans elsewhere, including in New Orleans, caused casino earnings to plummet, and gambling provides substantial funding for city-parish services.
Council members who have not co-sponsored the proposed ban were worried about the loss of casino revenue. They also expressed concern over the government interfering with private businesses.
Currently, five types of buildings are specifically excluded from city-parish smoking regulations. Bars, hotel and motel rooms, tobacco businesses, “any property where gaming operations are conducted” and private homes — except those that double as a health or child care facility — are all unregulated.
Supporters of the smoking ban have framed their argument as a way to protect workers from carcinogens and other deleterious toxins in secondhand smoke.
Bar and casino employees are also disproportionately women and racial minorities, according to literature distributed by the Smoke-Free East Baton Rouge organization, which hosted the event.
“To exempt casinos and bars (from smoking regulations) is morally bankrupt,” said the Rev. Rick Andrus, of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church. “Too many people are looking for profit rather than the effect on people.”
Others have pointed out that the economic impact of the expanded ban could be significant. Smoking bans in New Orleans, Colorado and Illinois caused casino wins to fall by 20 percent, a spokesman for L’Auberge Casino’s parent company said this week. Last year, the city took in nearly $10 million from casinos, meaning the local government could lose out on approximately $2 million should Baton Rouge face a similar fate.
“Am I going to fire 40 police officers? Or raise taxes to make up for the shortfall?” Councilman John Delgado rhetorically asked after the meeting.
He said the proposal would also make it virtually impossible for cigar lounges or hookah bars to operate.
“You’re just straight up closing those businesses,” should the measure pass, he said.
While supporters of the ban pointed out the impact of secondhand smoke on employees of bars and casinos, Councilman Buddy Amoroso remarked that workers will also suffer if their employers lose money and are forced to make layoffs. Nevertheless, he said Wednesday that he hasn’t yet decided which way he will vote.
Councilman Trae Welch said the conversation shouldn’t be about smoke but whether the government should be allowed to prohibit an otherwise legal activity. He wondered if anti-smoking advocates will next clamor for regulations on other vices like sugary drinks.
Mayor-President Kip Holden has not taken a position on the proposed ordinance, though he said proponents should be certain that the wording of their ordinance does not produce unintended consequences.
Asked if he’s worried about the city-parish losing money if casino revenue takes a hit, Holden said he sees both sides of the debate.
“That’s always something to worry about, but at the same time, some people say you can’t put a price on a life,” he said.
Smoke-Free East Baton Rouge organizers invited Remi DeMatteo, general manager of The Bulldog, to speak at their rally. His bar voluntarily went smoke-free about a year ago.
“I was scared to do it ... (but) I can tell you I was wrong,” he said.
Smoking regulars may not have liked the new policy, but “they came back home to us,” and the bar began to attract nonsmoking customers who preferred the smokeless atmosphere.
“I’m here to tell other bar owners — don’t be too concerned,” DeMatteo said.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.