Uptown New Orleans is home to a unique and valuable establishment – Dos Jefes Cigar Bar at 5535 Tchoupitoulas. At Dos Jefes, a man (or woman) can smoke and drink while listening to live music or just talking with friends in a casual environment.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m actually not that much of a smoker and am not a regular at Dos Jefes. Still, I do enjoy the occasional cigar or pipe, but smoking regularly has just never appealed to me. Nevertheless, when I do get the urge, I like to know that, if I so desire, there’s a commercial establishment designed for that purpose. The market serves the need.
Alas, there are those currently conspiring in Baton Rouge to see that the market no longer serves this need, and that all bars and casinos are made smoke-free. The group is called the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living (LCTFL). You might have seen their “Let’s Be Totally Clear” campaign around town on television and billboards, featuring musicians and bartenders complaining that they aren’t being provided their right to clean air in the workplace.
When the LCTFL pushed a smoking ban for bars and casinos last year, it failed. However, when the legislature reconvenes on April 25th, it is widely expected that a broader smoking ban will once again be on the bargaining table.
The LCTFL’s logic is simple enough. Second-hand smoke is bad for you. It increases an individual’s risk of developing lung cancer or emphysema, among other things.
Over time, the public has been made broadly aware of these risks. Nevertheless, even nonsmokers routinely patronize bars and casinos that allow smoking. Nonsmokers will also often accept jobs with smoking establishments. These brave souls voluntarily expose themselves the danger, knowing the risk.
The problem here, though, isn’t that second-hand smoke is dangerous. It’s that second-hand smoke isn’t dangerous enough.
According to the U.S. Surgeon General, living with a smoker increases a non-smoker’s risk of developing lung cancer by 20-30%. That’s not insignificant, but it’s not that great either. Consuming too many servings of milk actually poses a greater cancer risk.
By expressing the increased risk as a percentage, the anti-smoking forces imply a far greater danger than actually exists. The baseline risk of getting lung cancer is small, so increasing that risk slightly isn’t something your average person will base their decisions around. Deep down, your average patron or job-seeker knows that the risk is relatively minor.
Of course, smoking does cause other problems for non-smokers. It smells, and the smell lingers on clothing. For some, the smoke is an allergy trigger. If a venue allows smoking, it tends to keep some potential customers away even as it attracts others.
However, this dynamic is already reflected in the market. Some bars and event venues have gone non-smoking, including Tipitina’s and the Columns Hotel Bar, and they benefit by catering to those who have a particular aversion to smoking. Most other establishments, however, have remained smoking venues and still cater to smokers and non-smokers alike. Non-smokers either don’t care, or they suck it up because the venue offers other amenities.
The point of all this is that the market provides options. Customers and employees can weigh the benefits and downsides of smoking establishments, and they are doing so rationally. The law doesn’t need to create a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Nobody is being trapped. Everything is voluntary.
Of course, the situation is all the more stark when dealing with bars like Dos Jefes that are actually designed to cater to smokers. The legislation as previously proposed contained no exemptions for cigar bars or any other establishments specifically marketed towards smokers.
And in any case, there is a certain comical element in trying to push healthy living in dens of vice like bars and casinos. One imagines seeing a slobbering drunk at the bar, his liver screaming in agony, begrudging a smoker his cigarette.
Ultimately, we do not need to be “totally clear.” The owners of bars and casinos can decide for themselves whether to allow smoking, and their employees and patrons can decide for themselves whether to do business based on that decision. Here’s to hoping that the legislature reaches that decision (again) when it reconvenes later this month.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.