As the director of the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living and a career public health and tobacco control evaluator and advocate, I’m surprised that an organization like Harrah’s, who proudly promotes its community support and employee health benefits, is continuing to try to equate any of its losses to the current smoke-free ordinance. Put simply, the ordinance has been in effect for less than two months, absolutely not enough time to evaluate its impact on business, and its entire purpose is to better the health of our entire workforce, musicians, community and visitors.
Secondhand smoke in workplaces where employees and entertainers have no choice but to breathe the polluted air is a well-recognized public health problem.
In fact, nonsmoking employees of our bars and casinos are essentially forced to be smokers due to how much secondhand smoke they breathe during every shift they work.
Tobacco is the No. 1 cause of preventable death nationwide. Smoking kills 7,200 Louisianians every year and costs Louisiana almost $1.9 billion annually in health care costs.
During the many months we’ve been working to share this information and promote smoke-free workplaces for all, we’ve received countless emails, notes and phone calls from current and former employees at Harrah’s. They thank us on the streets for our work when they see us in our Healthier Air for All T-shirts, tell us their stories and then beg us to keep them anonymous for fear of losing their jobs.
An email we received not long ago addressing Harrah’s defeated request for a last-minute exemption stated: “I am very much in support of the smoke-free ordinance, but I cannot voice my opinions publicly due to the fact that I work at the establishment asking for a last-minute exemption. I must rely on you and others like you to speak for me, and not let this happen. After being given hope of a healthy life, it would disappoint me greatly to know that my lungs are less important than those who work in every other establishment in the city.”
Another individual wrote us saying: “I have been working as a dealer at Harrah’s Casino for over 15 years. I like my job, and feel very privileged to be able to work there. I want what is best for the company that I work for, but I don’t want to die in the process. But I don’t think anyone should be able to smoke in a public building anywhere, period.”
It’s an undeniable truth that their employees want their workplace to remain smoke-free. So why would Harrah’s try to compromise to only protect some and not all of their staff, as well as its patrons?
The reality is, there is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke; even brief exposure is harmful to health. Eliminating smoking in indoor spaces is the only way to fully protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke exposure.
We thank the entire New Orleans City Council for staying strong and recognizing the importance of the public’s health over the unsubstantiated claims of one company.
director, the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living