SADOW: In Defense Of Shreveport’s Indoor Smoking Ban

Shreveport’s City Council this week faces a choice between possibly more tax dollars from more economic activity and limiting the autonomy of vulnerable citizens.

Councilors will consider passing an amended ordinance that carves out an exemption from its commercial smoking ban for establishments that have gambling. An entire ban for indoor areas except for businesses specifically catering to smoking would have gone into effect last Aug. 1 but was delayed to this Aug. 1 because of the impact of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. Now some want to dilute the prohibition by excluding gaming areas of casinos and bars and truck stops licensed for gambling.

As has become typical as jurisdiction after jurisdiction in Louisiana where such battles play out with casinos involved – and all resulting in restricting of smoking – opponents argue casinos will take a hit with this. Smoking, like gambling, is addictive behavior, so eliminating the practice of one vice by discouraging practitioners of another disproportionately eats into casinos’ potential clientele.

Research, however, doesn’t show much of a deleterious impact of smoking bans on casino revenues. When New Orleans enacted a smoking ban that affected its one casino, the land-based Harrah’s, its revenues declined, but largely tracked declines elsewhere in Louisiana and nationally. Likely any loss of smoking patrons to some degree became offset to some degree by gaining patrons who otherwise wouldn’t have shown up because of they didn’t want to endure a smoking environment.

Harrah’s faced competition from nearby Kenner, whose riverboat casino continues to allow smoking, but responded by creating outdoor spaces with gaming devices where smoking may occur. Similarly, the Shreveport ordinance would permit the riverboat casinos there to do the same.

These considerations largely moot the contention that casinos would lose any significant business to their counterparts in Bossier City where smoking remains legal in casinos, removing that prop supporting the targeted repeal of the ordinance. Yet the most compelling reason to reject the alteration lies in how it discriminates against some potential clients.

Proponents of keeping the more comprehensive ban have argued, since smoking has an association with a number of maladies, that the prohibition protects the health of workers. It’s not a great argument, since workers if concerned about health risks can choose to take a job in a non-smoking environment.

However, some potential patrons who have pulmonary difficulties don’t have any choice in the matter. If they enter an environment with smoking, they get put into distress. For some, even one whiff of smoke causes immediate complications, so they can’t even patronize smoke-free casino restaurants if smoking continues in gaming areas as it is impossible to filter out all the residue wafting about the interior.

This vulnerable population continues to grow. Nearly 5 percent of Americans have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, or other chronic lower respiratory diseases, and another 8 percent have asthma. (Ironically, some will have these because they smoked.) This means about an eighth of the population can’t visit casinos without difficulty if these permit smoking on the indoor premises.

These people can’t turn their diseases off to go to a place where smoking occurs; it’s not a voluntary condition and it’s not a choice. But smoking is a voluntary action and smokers can choose not to engage in it. Why should a group of people who have the ability to choose to behave one way, and allowed to export the consequences of that behavior onto others, be privileged over others who don’t have any choice in how they react to that exported consequence, thereby reducing their autonomy compared to the privileged group?

Ultimately, this is not really a question of revenues, but of the amount of inclusion that government wants to promote over an activity it grants permission to occur and regulates tightly. Shreveport shouldn’t discriminate by privileging the ability of smokers engaging in voluntary behavior to prevent others who through no fault of their own can’t otherwise enjoy the same good, by the Council rejecting the amendment.

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