- Associated Press - Thursday, January 22, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - To protect the health of musicians and entertainment industry workers, the New Orleans City Council on Thursday voted unanimously to ban smoking in bars and gambling halls even as the owners of those establishments said such a move would hurt business.

New Orleans, a famously libertine city, has been one of the last major American cities to allow people to smoke tobacco in bars. Smoking at indoor restaurants is no longer permitted. The new ban is expected to take effect in about three months.

For a city that thrives on tourism, and its image as a party town, passing the ban was fraught with reservations. But several council members said they were persuaded to approve the ban to protect the health of residents and those people who work in the city’s entertainment industry and are subjected to secondhand smoke.

One council member, James Gray II, choked up and shed a few tears after he read off the names of people he was close to who died from lung cancer. Another member, councilman at-large Jason Williams, dismissed the idea that smoke-filled lounges are what tourists are attracted to. Instead, he said the city must protect “the heart and soul” of the city - its musicians and barroom workers.

Still, the council was warned that a ban would hurt business and therefore also cut into tax revenues.

Logan Gaskill, a lawyer for Harrah’s New Orleans, a large land-based casino next to the French Quarter, said the casino predicted a 20 percent decline in revenues from a ban.

The ban was tweaked before being approved. For instance, New Orleans police won’t have to enforce the ordinance and smoking will be allowed within 5 feet of bar entrances - not 25 feet away as first proposed. Smoking also will be allowed in parks. Also exempt from the ban were cigar shops and hookah bars already in existence. Smoking also will be allowed at outside areas of bars, restaurants and gambling halls.

The council talked about having the health department enforce the code and to have bars and patrons conduct self-enforcement.

Individuals who break the ordinance would face fines of $50. Penalties for business owners or managers start at a $100 for a first offense and grow from there. Owners also could face the loss of their license to sell alcohol.

Thursday’s vote was applauded by hundreds of supporters, among them doctors, nurses and former smokers.

“For generations, New Orleans was known as ‘The City That Care Forgot,’” said LaToya Cantrell, the council member who introduced the ordinance. “Today we’re making history.”

A smaller group of opponents, including gambling and bar industry representatives, warned about declining revenues and what that could mean for the city’s ability to pay for public services, such as police. Another group against the ban was users of electronic cigarettes. They argued that they should not be lumped into a ban against tobacco.

In December, Louisiana State Police, the agency overseeing gambling, projected a loss of $104 million in revenues and state fees in two years following a smoking ban. Besides Harrah’s casino, there is a busy horse racing track and many video poker halls in New Orleans. But proponents have pointed to other studies that show bans actually drive up business and reduce medical costs.

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