We tend to go about things differently in New Orleans than in most other places in the nation. When it comes to changes in the social norm, we tend to lag way behind the rest of the nation — sometimes to our detriment, and sometimes in the absolute best ways possible. In recent weeks, our city council decided to buck our trend of loafing behind and opted to join in with other more progressive locales and passed a widespread and strict smoking ban for Orleans Parish.
This has been brewing for a few years now. Restaurants statewide went non-smoking in 2008, but Harrah’s and their lobbying arm always managed to preserve smoking in the downtown casino, bars and nightclubs within New Orleans. No more! Strip clubs, dive bars and cocktail lounges will all have to throw out their ashtrays and become smoke free. Smokers (and vapers, as their tools were included in the ban) will have to leave an establishment to indulge their habit. Money will be lost. Children will be sold on the black market to make rent when servers’ and bartenders’ tips are cut because patrons are marching on Bourbon with pitchforks and torches. Business will wither and die on the vine and…
Ok, FULL STOP. Businesses will be just fine.
Multiple major cities like Los Angeles and Denver have smoking ordinances. Trust me when I tell you they have plenty of bars and nightclubs. People still smoke. They simply go outside to do it. I am a former smoker and practiced that habit outside from the time I left home for college until the time I quit. The kneejerk freak out that is taking place needs to be derailed immediately as history does not bear any of those concerns out. Even Harrah’s will be just fine. Coincidentally, I haven’t heard of The Palace Casino over in Biloxi shutting down after their decision to go smoke free.
I personally enjoy the hell out of hanging out in bars and clubs with a no smoking policy. My whiskey tastes better, my sinuses aren’t wrecked for three days after, my clothes don’t stink, I don’t get ashes on me and don’t have gross nasty ashtrays and people with cigarette breath in front of me at the bar all night. I’ve said for a long time that the first non-smoking strip club on bourbon would make an absolute killing because no one is filling that market.
Here’s the problem though: other than protection from fraud and violence, we shouldn’t be allowing government to dictate to business what type of environment they MUST offer. That is the function of the consumer in this equation.
Shoving aside all the badly argued emotional appeals with council members showing the pictures of relatives struck dead by cancer, the city government has overstepped their bounds in deciding what we as patrons should be allowed to choose for ourselves. This is not a job for public health. This is a decision for grown adults that are in a bar, most likely to consume a fair portion of a carcinogen (alcohol) after a night out of eating carcinogens (red meat, grilled food, shellfish) hanging out in extremely old French Quarter buildings loaded with carcinogens (“Dey got da asbestuss in da Quartahs, breh!”), and most likely arrived there by a conveyance that is fueled by and emits carcinogens (combustion engines). Their attempt to protect us from ourselves ignores the other dangers around us that are much more prevalent than a non-smoker being exposed to cigarette smoke when they go out once every so often.
The second reason put forth in support of the ban is that workers should not be subject to second hand smoke at work and it’s unfair to expect them to have to tolerate the smoke to get a paycheck. The problem with this piece of logic is that employment in Louisiana is at-will and totally voluntary. No worker in Louisiana is forced to continue their employment, and if they are being coerced, they should call the police to report it. If you are a bartender and you voluntarily work in a smoking permissible bar, you can’t get upset when people light up next to you; in the same way that I, as a professional chef, pretty much have to accept bad knees and burn scars as an occupational hazard.
Every worker has to do a cost/benefit analysis with their trade. If the potential health risks of a career outweigh the professional and financial satisfaction that your job brings you, then by all means find another job or find another employer in that field that is more to your liking. Many venue operators in South Louisiana voluntarily do their business smoke free. Before this ban passed there were well over 100 entertainment venues in New Orleans that were voluntarily non-smoking (for a while now I’ve recommend d.b.a. for non-smokers, amazing beer selection and good live music). Those venues filled a vital niche in the city for smoke free entertainment. What happens to them now that the entire rest of the city has been forced into following their business model? Have we just killed the Apple Barrel? Will the Circle Bar lose money now? The unintended consequences of this distortion in the market may end up costing jobs for the very same people the city council ostensibly meant to protect.
And who is going to enforce this ban? It can’t fall to our catastrophically overworked and understaffed (seriously guys, jobs available!) police department. Most of the press I’ve read has said that enforcement will fall to the Health Department. In my career as a chef, going back years, I’ve met maybe three different health inspectors in this town so I think it’s a safe guess that there will need to be hires made. Rumor also possibly has Mayor Landrieu’s proposed citizen patrol issuing the tickets for breaking the ban. Anyone want to give odds on how long it takes for one of the unarmed puff patrollers to be assaulted for writing a drunk tourist a smoking ticket? The flat out fact is that the city passed the ban while failing to spell out enforcement accountability and no money has been budgeted to actually put the plan into action.
Who has what defined role in this scenario? As it stands now, the city government has inserted itself as the arbiter of your personal decisions while you are in New Orleans. They have determined that because something bad happened to their relatives and friends due to the choices they made in life that they will protect you by removing your ability to make the choice to hang out in a smoky bar, or to smoke a big stinky cigar while you’re in a gentleman’s club, or to vape while you hang out in a karaoke joint.
We have all been essentially made into children who need guidance as the city has usurped our authority to determine the disposition of our own personal consumer choices. In the world where grownups are able to make their own decisions the business owner provides the service, the patron decides if they want it, and the success or failure of a venture should be determined by whether or not the consumer wants their product and if they want that product under the conditions that the business owner produces it. Barring criminal behavior, the government should have no say.
Isn’t it odd how they keep legislating people into being criminals?
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and should not be assumed to reflect the views of Deep South Voice or its affiliates.