A ban on smoking in bars and casinos in the City of New Orleans is beginning to appear increasingly inevitable. Although a concerted campaign to enact a statewide ban has failed repeatedly in past years, the insidious anti-smoking forces are now focusing on smaller-scale efforts.
In New Orleans, these forces have found a political surrogate in District B City Councilwoman Latoya Cantrell, who plans to introduce a smoking ban this fall.
“This is not an attack, this is about healthier environments for all people: those who work in these environments, musicians, employees,” Cantrell said recently. ”But the majority of the people now within our city and even state, close to 80 percent are non-smokers.”
Cantrell attempts an artful dodge, but the truth is that this is an attack — an attack on a market choice.
Nobody is really arguing that nonsmokers are being underserved by the market. At present, over a hundred local bars have gone nonsmoking, and the trend is going that direction. Nevertheless, small neighborhood watering holes with large numbers of regulars who smoke are unlikely to ban smoking of their own volition. Hence, Cantrell wants to force them.
Although Cantrell’s office says that no legislation has been written yet, it can be anticipated that any local ban will mirror the language of the failed state legislation. This would mean a ban on smoking in establishments holding “Class A – General Retail” liquor licenses.
This would apply to all bars and casinos, including hookah lounges and cigar bars like Dos Jefe’s on Tchoupitoulas. Alas, the law necessarily has to be overbroad; any loopholes will be exploited. If you exempt cigar bars, you can expect many bars to reinvent themselves as exactly that to serve smoking patrons.
Ultimately, that exemplifies the problem. The persons best situated to know what their customers want are the bar owners themselves. Customers vote with their feet, and with the increasing availability of smoke-free bars, economic logic dictates that the most efficient result will result from leaving the decision of whether to allow smoking in the hands of the owners.
Numerous studies have been put forth claiming that there is no economic downside to smoking bans, but that doesn’t wash. These studies tend to use flawed and deceptive models that fail to control for variables and don’t compare gross sales. It stands to reason that many bars would see no impact, while others would see considerable impact.
The bottom line is that if going nonsmoking were of universal benefit to bar owners, they’d have done it already. Let’s not pretend they don’t have their eyes on the bottom line.
Also, New Orleans is a special case. Unlike most places, here in New Orleans most bars have video poker machines and function as quasi-casinos. This point is crucial, because while many studies purport to show no impact from a smoking ban in bars, evidence indicates that they cause severe economic losses for casinos.
After the Smoke Free Illinois Act was passed in 2008, the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis performed a study on the impact of the Act on casinos and found that casino revenue dropped 20% in the first year, an economic loss of $400 million. If every bar in the city sees a 20% drop in revenue from video poker, or if Harrah’s sees a 20% drop in total revenue, there will be a considerable economic impact.
And that’s not even getting into the issue of whether Hookah lounges and cigar bars could effectively rebrand themselves to comply with the ban. Would they continue tobacco sales and sacrifice their liquor licenses, or would they simply become ordinary bars? Either option would probably be risky – the equivalent of starting a new business.
Irrespectively of whether a smoking ban would hurt alcohol sales, it would take a decision out of the hands of bar owners for the supposed benefit of customers, employees, and performers who voluntarily choose to affiliate with a smoking establishment. This restriction would be enacted for the sake of a dubious health benefit in businesses where – let’s face it – people don’t go to be healthy.
Furthermore, it would have some ancillary impacts. It would certainly drive smokers out onto the sidewalk. When smokers gather outside, they’re likely to talk. When people gather and talk outside a bar late at night, nearby residents complain. When people start complaining, land use battles erupt. Consequently, we can expect an increasing number complaints about neighborhood bars when the smokers are pushed outside.
The foregoing gives but a taste of all the consequences that a blanket ban on smoking in casinos and bars will have. It’s bad law.
I do understand the reasons for such a push. I’m a nonsmoker and always have been, and I will admit that there are times when I’ve been in a bar and smoke wafting into my face became downright irritating. I’m also aware that second-hand smoke does create an actual health risk (albeit one that has been vastly exaggerated).
Still, at some point we have to acknowledge that the experience of patronizing or being employed by a bar is a voluntary one, and for many people drinking and smoking go together like biscuits and gravy. Thus, a bar owner can reasonably decide to permit smoking. If you don’t like the situation, there are over one hundred other bars practically begging for your patronage.
This is not a case of market failure. The market is serving everyone’s needs already and there is no need for a government fiat. There is no need to jump on Cantrell’s bandwagon.
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.