Councilman proposes barring penalties for those smoking in bars _lowres

Advocate file photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ-- Tom Taylor, a bartender at Buffa's, takes a puff off his cigarette while taking care of patrons in New Orleans, La. Friday, Nov. 14, 2014. City officials are trying to pass an ordinance prohibiting smoking in bars. Buffa's has a non-smoking restaurant in a rear room.

The ink is barely dry on New Orleans’ recently expanded smoking ban, and it won’t go into effect for more than two months, but there’s already a proposal on the table to amend the measure by preventing individual smokers from being punished if they light up in a bar or casino.

The proposed amendment, sponsored by Councilman Jason Williams, is not expected to come up for a vote at Thursday’s City Council meeting, though it could be on an agenda in the near future.

The ban the council passed two weeks ago essentially bars smoking or using electronic cigarettes in nearly any indoor business, including bars and casinos that were exempted from the 2007 state law that prohibits smoking in restaurants and other workplaces. There are still exemptions for cigar bars, hookah bars and electronic cigarette shops.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed the ban into law last week. It will take effect April 22.

Penalties for violations range from a $100 fine for a first offense to $500 for a third offense within a 12-month period.

Under the law as passed, those penalties could be levied against the smokers themselves or the owners, managers or employees of the establishment where they were smoking. The measure also allows the city to revoke the permits of establishments where there are violations.

Williams’ proposed change would eliminate the possibility that individual smokers could be fined — an idea he said is aimed at ensuring it would not be used to target minorities.

That would be an extension of a previous amendment he succeeded in adding to the ordinance that takes enforcement out of the hands of the New Orleans Police Department. He said that change was intended to make sure officers can’t use smoking as a pretext for searches or harassment based on an individual’s race.

“This makes it clear so when I’m dead and gone or no longer on the council, there’s not someone that says anything on the books can be enforced by the NOPD,” Williams said.

Council members Jared Brossett, James Gray and Nadine Ramsey all have signed on as co-sponsors of Williams’ proposed amendment. Those four members together pushed through a number of changes to the ban before the council adopted it, narrowing its scope and eliminating provisions that would have prevented smoking outside near doorways and in other outdoor areas.

It was not clear Wednesday where Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who sponsored and championed the ban as it made its way to adoption, stands on Williams’ latest proposal.

The amendment would put the entire onus of enforcing the ban on bartenders and others working at the establishments, who Williams said are in the best position to control what is happening in their businesses.

“Bartenders are going to be the best and most reliable enforcement,” Williams said.

Ramsey last week introduced but then withdrew an ordinance that would have exempted Harrah’s New Orleans Casino from the new requirements. The councilwoman’s staff said she believed Landrieu had sought the exemption and withdrew the proposal after learning he did not support it.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.