Cover Story

Smoke Signals

by Jeremy Alford

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

**Smoking in bars - is 2011 the year a ban comes to Louisiana?

Health nuts, privacy whacks, cigarette lobbyists and all of our favorite lawmakers will be throwing down during the spring regular session over how much smokes should cost and where they should be burned down. (Plus $18,430 in donations worth knowing about.)  By Jeremy Alford**

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

**Smoking in bars - is 2011 the year a ban comes to Louisiana?

Health nuts, privacy whacks, cigarette lobbyists and all of our favorite lawmakers will be throwing down during the spring regular session over how much smokes should cost and where they should be burned down. (Plus $18,430 in donations worth knowing about.)  By Jeremy Alford**

Whether it's Gov. Bobby Jindal's chief of staff spitting in a cup just off the House floor (the lower chamber subsequently adopted an internal ban) or campaign donations spread around by cigarette manufacturers, tobacco has always had some role to play in modern Louisiana politics. Dating much further back to the Bayou State's most primitive politics, circa late 1700s, the Choctaw and Chicksaw tribes grew a specialized tobacco known as perique for their own cultural and economic needs. It's actually still harvested today in St. James Parish and has cultivated an international fan base for its supposed fruity and complex flavor.

Only a few dozen acres are being farmed these days. But in 1922, there were some 1,000 acres of perique growing around the area of Grand Point. That was the beginning of the Golden Age of Smoking. Just watch an episode of the period series Mad Men or any of the historical Mardi Gras documentaries on WYES and you'll see throngs of glamorous people smoking anywhere and everywhere.

It's also around the time government started to sniff out the policy potential of tobacco. In 1926, the Louisiana Legislature passed its first ever tax on cigarettes - a penny for every dime worth of the price on a pack.

This particular issue comes with enough statistics to keep the fire burning well into the spring regular session. According to the Louisiana Tobacco Control Program, more than 734,000 people in this state smoke cigarettes and one out of every 10 pregnant women continues smoking while carrying a child.

Louisiana has the second highest rate of cancer in the nation, and the state Department of Health and Hospitals has posted the following as "fact" on its Web site: "Even if it doesn't kill, secondhand smoke can cause all types of illnesses, including lung cancer, heart disease, nasal sinus cancer, respiratory disease, bronchitis, middle ear infections, asthma and pneumonia." Then there's all the stuff they print on and include in cigarette packs.

Just last week, the mother of the late Maceo Bevrotte Jr., a former card dealer at Harrah's New Orleans, filed a federal lawsuit against Harrah's owner Caesars Entertainment Corp., claiming her son's cancer was due to prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke in the workplace. The suit asked the judge to certify the lawsuit as a class action, meaning 1,000 nonsmoking Harrah's employees could become plaintiffs. As The Independent Weekly went to press, Caesars Entertainment had no comment.

When lawmakers convene their session on April 25, these are the kind of sound bites you'll hear most often. First and foremost, it seems like everything is lined up for another political battle over smoking in bars and casinos, which are the last bastions for tobacco consumers under Louisiana's Smoke Free Air Act. A complete ban was approved by the state Senate last year but later failed to gain traction during a hearing before the House Health and Welfare Committee. In anticipation of a rematch, sources say bars and casinos are already working on various marketing campaigns.

"There will be a bill filed for consideration this year," says state Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Grosse Tete. However, he isn't ready "to disclose the details of the bill at this time." Marionneaux, a term-limited lawmaker prepping a run for Iberville Parish sheriff, grabbed headlines statewide last year for pushing legislation to ban smoking in bars and casinos.

A gifted trial lawyer, Marionneaux oftentimes crafted the debate as David versus Goliath. As far as campaign finances, it's easy enough to see on paper.

In May of last year, after passing the Senate by a vote of 23-12, Marionneaux's drive was dealt a fatal blow when the House Health and Welfare Committee rejected his bill by a vote of 8-4. No big surprise really; the committee has a reputation for sacrificing just about any bill that would discomfort the tobacco industry. Just consider that in 2009 and 2010, members of the House committee drew at least $18,430 from tobacco companies, related subsidiaries and connected lobbying firms, according to the Louisiana Ethics Administration. Committee Chairwoman Kay Katz, R-Monroe, leads the way, of course, with $4,150 such contributions. She voted against Marionneaux's proposed ban last year, along with Reps. Richie Burford, R-Stonewall, $1,000; Jean Doerge, D-Minden, $1,274; Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, $1,500; John LaBruzzo, R-Metairie, $2,250; Bernard LeBas, D-Ville Platte, $579; Scott Simon, R-Abita Springs, $1,750; and Thomas Willmott, R-Kenner, $1,427.

But remember, practically everyone on the committee has tobacco-related loot in their campaign kitties. Voting for Marionneaux's ban were Reps. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, who received $750 in donations; Walker Hines of New Orleans, then a Democrat but now a Republican, $1,750; Rickey Nowlin, R-Natchitoches, $1,250; and J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, $750.

If the push for a complete ban falls short, anti-smoking advocates will probably have another policy horse to follow during this year's regular session, which is dedicated chiefly to fiscal issues. Stewart Gordon, president of the Louisiana chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told the Baton Rouge Press Club on Feb. 28 that his organization is actively supporting increasing taxes on cigarettes. With the state facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall, the idea is sure to stimulate more than a few lawmakers. "We do support a tobacco tax," Stewart told the press club.
Go buy a pack of smokes today and you'll pay 36 cents per pack in state taxes, well below the national average of $1.45; Louisiana is actually much closer to where it was in 1926. In 2009, the last time the Louisiana Legislature conducted a fiscal session, the House Health and Welfare Committee shot down a $1 tax hike, which would have created a new state tax of $1.36 per pack.

For now, it's all about the statistics - you know, those sound bites that are about to take over the airwaves as the regular session draws near. There will be musicians, black jack dealers and bartenders carted out in an all around dog and pony show. But the stats will still top everything else, like a recent study released by the Institute of Medicine, the independent health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, which suggests that approximately 1,000 children and adults in Louisiana die each year due to secondhand smoke exposure. While a sobering stat on its face, the report also gets to the point of politics and reveals that smoke-free air laws and regulations are effective at actually reducing the risk of heart disease.
What the report doesn't cover, though, and what few can easily predict right now, is what kind of fate such anti-smoking bills have when faced by a governor who refuses to pass taxes - no matter the cause and effect - and a Legislature that is largely up for re-election later this fall. There's also no way to tell if lawmakers are actively collecting money from Big Tobacco prior to the session's start, since the next reporting period is still several months away.
For all parties involved, it's enough to make you want to light one up.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at [email protected]

Kill Bill
Eight members of the House Health & Welfare Committee, all of whom received tobacco money, voted last year against a bill prohibiting smoking in bars and casinos.

Rep. Jean Doerge    $1,274
Rep. Richie Burford    $1,000

Rep. Bernard Lebas    $579
D-Ville Platte

Rep. Robert Johnson   $1,500

Rep. Kay Katz    $4,150

Rep. Thomas Willmott   $1,427

Rep. Scott Simon    $1,750
R-Abita Springs

Rep. John Labruzzo    $2,250

Grammy-winner Chubby Carrier, left, Lafayette
businessman Zachary Barker and
musician David Egan are fighting to end smoking
in Lafayette bars.

Not Just Blowing Smoke

Lafayette's David Egan is taking his fight to the streets of Lafayette, hoping to make it the first city in the state to ban smoking in bars.
By Heather Miller

Lafayette musician David Egan profoundly recalls the empty looks on the faces of state lawmakers who sat on the House Health and Welfare Committee last year as he shared his cancer survival story and his charge to ban smoking in bars and casinos statewide.

Egan, a poster child for the Let's Be Totally Clear movement to end smoking in the only two public places in Louisiana where smokers can still light up indoors, was soundly defeated.

But where there's smoke, there's fire - and Egan is marching on in his role of "putting a beard" on the fight to end smoking in bars and casinos, venues he and countless other musicians, like Grammy-award winning zydeco band leader Chubby Carrier, frequent to earn a living. Though new smoke-free legislation may be filed during the upcoming session, Egan, Carrier and others with a stake in public health have left the steps of the Capitol and are taking their message to the streets of Lafayette - the city they hope will be the first in the state to extinguish smoking at bars through local ordinance.

When the Louisiana Smoke-Free Air Act was enacted in 2007, Tobacco-Free Living Program Manager Carrie Broussard says the measure not only barred smoking in most public places, it also gave local governments the authority to establish their own smoke-free policies - stricter laws that could include bars and casinos.

"There hasn't been any traction in Baton Rouge, but local leaders have the ability to protect every employee in every workplace, whether you're in an office, or you're making the drinks, or you're playing the music," Broussard says. "Why should anybody have to put their health on the line for a paycheck? We have a great culture that exists only in Lafayette. Why don't we protect that?"

On the state level, the defeat of the smoke-free legislation is linked to the tobacco lobby and its stronghold over state lawmakers. For Egan, Carrier and Lafayette businessman Zachary Barker, a Hub City newcomer from Nashville who has joined the cause, the local opposition includes several layers of arguments that, for the most part, trace back to long-standing traditions and ideology.

"For some, it's about government intrusion. You're telling someone who smokes that the establishment, or Big Brother, or whatever you want to call it is saying you can't do this," says Barker, owner of the adult networking and intramural sports group Acadiana Sports League. "But no one's saying you can't smoke. Just don't smoke inside. You're not taking away people's liberties. Look back at prohibition. Did it stop anyone from drinking? No. You think it's going to stop anyone from smoking? No. It's just going to stop them from smoking in an environment where the smoke is trapped and forces people who have chosen not to smoke to take in those toxic fumes."

Carrier, who has been performing for sold-out crowds in smoky bars and dance halls since he was 10 years old, says bar and casino owners often claim that smoke-free events will draw the smoking crowd to other smoke-friendly venues and thus have a negative impact on bar business. After witnessing the record crowds at his smoke-free shows in California almost 20 years ago, Carrier disagrees.

"If you give the people a chance, let them know [they'll] come hear some good music in a clean environment, I think more people will come," says Carrier, whose father died of lung cancer. "When I get on stage and say it's a non-smoking event, I get a lot of applause. I think in Lafayette people are afraid to take chances and make good choices."

Blue Moon Saloon owner Mark Falgout has his doubts on whether larger audiences would suddenly appear if smoking was outlawed in bars, he says, but also points out that the issue for bar owners is slightly more complex.

"Most of the money at the door goes to the musicians," says Falgout, who has hosted smoke-free events at Blue Moon for Carrier and Egan in the past. "People who smoke drink more. If people come in and pay but don't drink as much, then I can't survive. I understand the health argument. But it's a choice.

No one's making them smoke, and no one's making them go to places where there is smoking. People would live longer lives, and eventually it'll come to that. Bars are one of the last-standing places. But as a business owner, it's tough. There are mixed thoughts. There's a correlation between people who drink and people who smoke."

But what if all local bars and night clubs were smoke-free? Would a clear stage for all still discourage smoking patrons from a night out to see local musicians at the quintessential live music venues that largely define Lafayette's culture?

Legends partner and manager Steven Canedo says two out of five Legends locations are smoke-free, and Canedo hopes to eventually transition all of Lafayette's Legends to non-smoking establishments - a task he believes would be made easier if all bars were smoke-free.

"It's hard right now because people are so used to it," Canedo says.

A recent study by Louisiana Tobacco Free Living maintains that 17 out of 22 bars in Lafayette where smoking is permitted have "unhealthy," "very unhealthy," or "hazardous" air quality levels, according to standards outlined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The average air quality levels of the smoking bars were 16.6 times unhealthier than the average air quality levels found in the five non-smoking bars tested in Lafayette, Broussard says.

"The people who were smoking in the establishments, they're going to come back because that's where they like to go," Egan says. "They'll be angry for about a week and then they'll get over it. But then there's a whole other demographic of people who didn't come otherwise. We romanticize things about the Old South, and smoking is something some diehards are holding on to. But we don't pine for the days of open sewers or lynchings on Main Street, and a lot of other filthy things we've let go of because the day came where we just had to let it go. This day has come, or will come very soon. Why doesn't Lafayette be on the leading edge of that and not be one of the holdouts? It's inevitable."