Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans gives patrons lollipops as it introduces smoking ban _lowres

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ--A New Orleans fire fighting boat makes the sharp bend in the river at Algiers Point as the Algiers Ferry takes passengers across the Mississippi River in New Orleans, La. Thursday, June 5, 2014. The Aquarium of the Americas and Harrah's Casino loom in the background in the view scene from the high overpass walkway of Crescent Park downriver from the city.

When midnight came more than two dozen Harrah’s employees, some carrying white plastic cups filled with black sand, others holding purple bags containing Tootsie Pops, descended onto the casino floor to break the news to patrons.

“Harrah’s is now smoke free. May I ask that you put out your cigarette.”

Those patrons who complied were offered a Tootsie Pop in exchange for depositing their cigarettes into a cup. Those who did not received a visit from a security guard.

Harrah’s Casino New Orleans, like other bars and casinos in New Orleans, is now smoke free.

It became illegal to smoke in New Orleans bars and casinos at midnight, 90 days after Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed the “Smoke-Free Air Act” into law. The ban contains exemptions for existing cigar and hookah bars and for “vaping” at existing e-cigarette retailers.

The ban has been hailed by supporters as an important step in protecting workers in the city’s service industry and performers from the effects of secondhand smoke and a way to finally bring New Orleans in line with other major cities that prohibit smoking indoors in public spaces.

But critics say the measure infringes on the freedom of bar owners and customers and could cause significant revenue losses.

Harrah’s has been a vocal critic of the ban.

But more than an hour before midnight, the casino had placed signs alerting customers to its smoke-free status on the inside of the elevators in its parking garage and on the glass doors leading into the casino. Freestanding signs, about six feet tall, also graced the corridors leading through the casino.

And before midnight arrived, teams of workers collected ashtrays from their homes on the sides of slot machines and around Blackjack tables.

Workers were told not to offer patrons any opinion on the new ban as they enforced it.

Harrah’s Casino and dozens of French Quarter bars and restaurants filed suit last week to strike down the ban. The companies failed to convince a judge to issue a temporary restraining order that would have prevented the city from enforcing the ban. A hearing on the case is set for May 21.

The casino company also is trying to get legislators to put pressure on the city to drop the ban, pointing them toward studies showing that having to provide a smoke-free environment could cost the casino 20 percent of its business and mean fewer tax dollars for the state treasury.

Joe Brady, in town from Larose for the Zurich Classic, said he was less likely to visit the casino with the ban now in effect. Even though he managed to convince a Harrah’s employee to give him two Tootsie Pops in exchange for his one cigarette, he said the ban would diminish his enjoyment of the casino. He said it takes about an hour to drive to the downtown New Orleans casino from his home and two hours to drive to gaming halls on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The latter allows smoking.

“I think I’m going to leave because of this,” Brady said. “It will change my picking of the casino I go to.”

The city is still working out the details of how it will enforce the ban. For now, it will be the job of business owners to tell their patrons about the law and make sure they comply. The city is also accepting complaints to its website and 311.