New Orleans Smoking Ban Could Hurt Revenues in the City’s Gambling Venues

A smoking ban set to effect the city’s 500 casinos, bars, restaurants, and nightclubs is set to go into effect in New Orleans this week. As the final day of public smoking loomed, a number of venues allowed patrons to light up with much fanfare.

Frankie Mazzanti, 56-year old co-owner of 45 Tchoup, told his customers at the stroke of midnight between the 22nd and 23rd of April, “All right guys, put ’em out. Sorry, it’s over.

Mazzanti is one of a class of bar owners who’s used to playing fast-and-loose with the rules. Most French Quarter liquor joints do not enforce closing time with clockwork precision, but they all enforced the anti-smoking ban, because it has serious repercussions for those who don’t comply.

New Orleans among Last Pro-Smoking Holdouts

New Orleans is well-known as a city full of revelers and bon vivants. Before the smoke-free ordinance, the Big Easy was one of America’s last major cities which allowed smoking in public places.

The ban was sold as a measure to protect the health of musicians and entertainment industry workers, as well as the workers inside the bars and gaming venues. Despite the anti-smoking ban’s passage, it remains a hotly-discussed topic among bar patrons and business owners alike.

Harrah’s Casino Part of a Lawsuit against Ban

Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans estimates a 20% decline in revenue, due to the smoking ban. The gaming venue says that the city of New Orleans, especially, is known for allowing people to enjoy their vices. As one city councilperson called it, New Orleans has long been known as “The City That Care Forgot”.

Harrah’s ownership believes that tradition should continue. That’s why it was one of a number of businesses this week which sued for the right to continue smoking areas in their establishments. Like the casino owners, other members of the lawsuit says the ban is going to hurt their businesses. These business leaders also point out that the city is going to collect fewer taxes, due to the ban. In the Post-Katrina Era, fewer taxes means a decline in city services.

Shelly Waguespack, owner of Pat O’Briens’s French Quarter establishment, says that the ban goes against the traditions and culture of New Orleans. Waguespack, who is one of a group of business owners who joined the Harrah’s Casino lawsuit, said, “It’s that overall bohemian kind of free spirit that we have in New Orleans that makes it so unique, and it’s why people love it.

Cantrell’s Smoking Ban Initiative

LaToya Cantrell, a City Council member and the one who did not like the designation “The City That Care Forgot”, says that the ban is needed. She said that the city wants to attract tourists and many of them are not likely to frequent the dingy, smoke-filled bars of the French Quarter. Worse, the musicians and entertainers who are the lifeblood of the city need to be protected. In the 21st century, the image of the chain-smoking artist no longer applies; many entertainers want smoke-free environments as much as the patrons.

Raymond Williams, a long time trumpet player for the Hot 8 Brass Band, says he approves of the smoking ban. Mr. Williams said he played in those clubs, but he would have preferred not to have. Williams said, “I never liked to play smoky clubs. But when I was young, I never really thought about the health impacts.

Debate over New Orleans’s Traditions

The ban was hotly debated, even before it passed. Discussions ranged over a series of topics, including public health, lost revenues for businesses and local government, and the identity of New Orleans itself.

Eventually, the City Council approved the measure unanimously. To get that approval, though, changes had to be made. For instance, the smoking ban now stipulates a radius of 5-feet from the front of a bar, nightclub, or other public business. The original ban was 25 feet, but some council members balked at the suggestion.

Police May or May Not Enforce Ban

Also, the ban does not require police to enforce the law. That means individual officers might overlook violations entirely. Selective enforcement could become a facet of the anti-smoking ban.

Individuals who flaunt the ban must pay $50 for a first offense. The penalties for repeated offenses grow after that. Business owners and managers face fines at $100 per offense, with stiffer fines for repeat offenders. The biggest threat to businesses is the possibility they might lose their liquor license, which is a threat of life-or-death on Bourbon Street.

Debate over Lost Revenues

The same could be said for the gaming venues like Harrah’s Casino. Without their liquor license, many gamblers would not want to play. Also, the gamblers who remained might not play so freely or badly. Like the smoking ban, it would hurt business. The horse racing track and video poker halls in the city could face similar losses in revenues.

People still debate whether LaToya Cantrell’s ban is going to cost businesses money. The Louisiana State Police estimate $104 million in lost revenues in the first two years after a ban goes into effect. Other studies, coincidentally backed by proponents of smoking bans, say revenues actually increase when businesses have a smoking ban in place. They say more non-smokers are willing to go to bars and casinos, if they don’t have to deal with cigarette smoke.

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