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Smoking ban takes effect in New Orleans bars

Some worry prohibition will hurt the city’s fun-loving image

It was last call for smoking at the Kingpin, a New Orleans bar that invited patrons to participate in smoking-related contests before a ban went into effect.
It was last call for smoking at the Kingpin, a New Orleans bar that invited patrons to participate in smoking-related contests before a ban went into effect.William Widmer/New York Times/NYT

NEW ORLEANS — No one goes to a bar here, particularly one that advertises its hours as “2 p.m. till,” and expects precision about the time of day. But it was right on the stroke of midnight that Frankie Mazzanti, 56, one of the owners of the low-ceilinged neighborhood joint called 45 Tchoup, went along the bar picking up ashtrays and tossing them in a plastic bag.

“All right guys, put ’em out,” he said. “Sorry, it’s over.”

Just after midnight Tuesday, it became illegal to smoke in bars in New Orleans. Last call for cigarettes went out across the city: at the hazy Bud Rip’s bar in the Bywater; among the cigar-smoking crowd in the leopard print chairs at the French 75 bar in the French Quarter; at the Kingpin, where the bartenders handed out Nicorette gum; and at 45 Tchoup, where smoke had settled in so heavily that it began to form something like an Alpine cloud bank.

“This is one of the smokiest bars in town,” said Steve Zweibaum, 57, the owner of a jazz venue nearby who, while smoking a cigarette, spoke of how he had quit smoking long ago. “I know a bunch of people who don’t come in here because of the smoke,” he said, listing names. “Maybe they’ll come back.”

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New Orleans is late to banning smoking in bars, but it is not the last US holdout.

Las Vegas, Philadelphia, and several other large cities have not totally banned smoking in bars, according to a count kept by the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. But New Orleans, home of bars that never close and beers ordered to go, was one of those places where people assumed a smoking ban would never fly.

Still, a gradual move away from smoking had already begun. Louisiana state law had banned smoking in restaurants, and quite a few bars and clubs here had voluntarily forbidden smoking, including the well-known Maple Leaf Bar, which, fittingly, stopped allowing smoking on Ash Wednesday this year.

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But in late fall, LaToya Cantrell, a City Council member, introduced a concrete proposal against smoking. After multiple revisions, the council unanimously approved a ban ordinance several months later, but not before heated discussion over public health and lost revenues, and what all this meant for the identity of New Orleans.

Was this a case of regulating the joie de vivre out of a city where permissiveness is a founding principle, turning New Orleans into Orlando, or, heaven forbid, Atlanta? Actually, neither city has a total ban on smoking in bars.

“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,” said Shelly Waguespack, the owner of Pat O’Briens, a French Quarter staple and one of a group of businesses joining the city’s sole casino, Harrah’s, in suing over the ban.

Or were business interests wielding some vague romantic principle in an attempt to derail a policy meant to protect their workers?

“It’s exploiting people who have the least access to health care,” said Bethany Bultman, the president of the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic and Assistance Foundation, which provides health services to performers in the city.

The let-the-market-decide arguments falter, Bultman said, once you consider that this is a town of musicians living from paycheck to paycheck, and that they are not in a position to turn down a job over a venue’s smoking policy.

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“I never liked to play smoky clubs,” said Raymond Williams, who plays trumpet for the Hot 8 Brass Band. “But when I was young, I never really thought about the health impacts.”