In New Orleans’ Efforts To Make Bars and Casinos Smoke Free, It’s The Musicians’ Songs That Are the Sweetest.

Let’s call it the Battle of New Orleans, 2015.

As I write this, I am traveling from a meeting of the New Orleans City Council where testimony was heard regarding a new ordinance which would prohibit smoking in the city’s famed bars and the local casino.

As noted by Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell-who is the lead sponsor of the bill and who chaired the meeting–at the end of the hearing, it is a topic which has certainly engendered a lot of discussion among the residents of this iconic American city. Even when sitting in the airport the morning after the meeting I happened to overhear a gentleman near me intensely discussing the merits of the recommendations on the phone with a friend.

But loudest among the many voices were the sweet sounds that came from the musicians who provided testimony to the Council. There was no opposition from the music world: these artists earn their living inhaling the smoke of others, and they came out loud and clear about the need and benefit of being able to provide us entertainment in a healthier, smoke-free environment. As one of them noted a performer doesn’t have to consume a bit of every alcoholic beverage served all night long. But when you smoke in my face, I have no option but to take it in.[more]

Restaurants in New Orleans are already smoke-free, but bars and casinos are exempt. This bill is an effort to close that loophole.

We all know the harms of smoking. Tobacco is a product that when consumed as intended will kill half the people who use it. 480,000 people die in this country this year and every year from tobacco related illnesses. At least 12 cancers types-not just lung cancer–are linked to tobacco. The toll is immense, and the impact on our health and our healthcare is difficult to comprehend.  We pass the numbers around as though they were of little meaning, not giving much thought to what they truly represent. If we did take a moment to consider the enormity of the problem, we would be abhorred. But we don’t. We say it’s legal, so people should be able to consume it in its various forms, albeit with some pretty significant and growing restrictions.

Then there is the impact of second and even third hand smoke. Over 42,000 Americans die every year as a result of inhaling the smoke of others in homes, workplaces and elsewhere. 7000 of those folks die from lung cancer. And how many more are injured and have serious health consequences-especially cardiovascular disease-as a result of either living or working in a smoking environment? And now there is concern about what has been termed third hand smoke: the smoke residue that people carry to their homes after work, perhaps impacting their children especially those with asthma.

Second hand smoke is harmful. Its effects can accumulate in your body over long periods of time. One study cited by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network-the Society’s advocacy partner-notes that the level of pollutants in a smoking establishment can reach 50 times the amount found at the entrance of the Holland Tunnel in New York City at rush hour. That, my friends is a lot of smoke.

I don’t know how many people including me testified at the hearing. It went on for about two hours, evenly balanced between those in favor of and those against the legislation. Each person spoke for exactly two minutes-even the two state senators who attended and spoke vigorously in favor of the bill were limited in the time they were allowed. But the passion of those committed to making all of New Orleans’ entertainment and eating establishments smoke-free was there for all to see.

This actually wasn’t the first hearing. There was another the week prior which apparently was pretty raucous. In comparison, this one was much tamer. My colleagues had told me about that meeting, and top on their list was what the musicians said. So I thought I was prepared-but that was not to be the case. Hearing their pleas, and those from the professionals who provide medical care to them, was perhaps one of the most poignant moments I have experienced in public testimony. I simply wasn’t expecting the depth of feeling expressed by those who entertain us with their instruments, their voices, and their passion for their work.

Music is part of the heart and soul of this city. It is the birthplace and/or workplace for so many great musicians. It is and always will be married to jazz. Music is part of New Orleans’  life-and part of its funerals as well. Music is celebrated in New Orleans.

The stories were repeated again and again.  In effect: I work in bars to make a living. Smoke is part of my professional life. I breathe it and have to keep on playing/singing/performing. It stings, it hurts, my music can’t be as good as I want it to be because of the smoke. I didn’t even think twice about it until I worked in a smoke free place. The difference was real and it was immediate. Please pass this bill.

One musician apparently has even opened his own smoke free establishment so he can work without the scourge of second hand smoke.

The casino workers who testified obviously had a different take. Of course, the fact that they had a supervisor outside who was herding them through the process didn’t go unnoticed, at least to me. One employee who testified against the bill worked in the marketing department-as was emphasized through a question from a council member. But of course she justified her support of second-hand smoke exposure in the workplace because she had to meet clients on the smoke filled casino floor. It doesn’t take much effort to conclude that she isn’t exposed to second-hand smoke for 8 hours a day every day she works. Next, please.

Having a job with a good income means a lot in this town where casino jobs for example rank pretty high on the economic ladder for many folks. Money needed to live can make many people stare down realities that would otherwise have them thinking twice about working in a particular place. Anyway, the reasoning goes, “Whatever happens is probably going to be a long time away. I’ll worry about it then.” But the reality is that “then” comes a lot quicker than younger people realize.

No one should have to make that choice, especially when that choice is easily avoidable. Going smoke-free gives everyone an equal shot at a good job, and a good and healthy life.

The showdown will continue apparently through Thursday January 22 when a vote is planned. The forces will continue to be aligned pro and con. Efforts will be made to influence the vote and the voters in the city. Scary arguments will be raised that revenues for the city will decrease dramatically and jobs will be lost (although excellent testimony accurately refuted these dire predictions). The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network strongly encourages the City Council to pass this ordinance. New Orleans needs to make a statement to the country, and more important to its community that it stands for the health of its citizens and is willing to make an investment in their well-being for years to come.

However, I will never forget-and neither should many others-that among all the voices that evening in the Council chambers it was the musicians whose sounds were truly the sweetest. It came from their hearts, and New Orleans should listen to their song.


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