For most drinkers nationwide, smoke-filled barrooms are largely a thing of the past. With 82% of Americans currently living in a place with some form of restriction on indoor smoking—including bars and restaurants—firmly cemented into law, it’s not surprising that the ritual of lighting up in bars is almost exclusively etched into boozy memory.
Along with a handful of other (notoriously bon vivant-loving) cities, New Orleans has been a longtime holdout. After a late January decision by the New Orleans City Council, though, the city will join the smoke-free masses as a ban on indoor smoking goes into effect—just in time for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
What took so long?
Anxiety about disrupting the attractive nature of New Orleans’ “live-and-let-live” reputation has created apprehension amongst longtime residents. Many believe that, by placing restrictions on smoking, a piece of critical culture mass might slide away along with it.
“I’m just going to take you deep in the heart of fucking for-real land,” said a longtime French Quarter waiter—mid-cigarette—bellied up to the bar at Kajun’s Pub late one afternoon. “This cuts into the heart of New Orleans. The smoking ban takes something away from it. Now you’re going to have a new cottage-industry scene of house parties with service industry people.”
Concerns also run deep that the smoking ban might shutter many smaller bars permanently. “I’m worried they’re going to shut us down because it’ll be too noisy,” said Robin of the legendary dive bar Snake ‘n Jakes. “This will particularly impact bars like us—smaller bars—that don’t have access to a patio or outdoor space. Once everyone is outside to smoke, all the neighbors are going to throw a fit. And they already hate us.”
While a rapidly developing subculture of underground, smoker-friendly house parties might very well develop, the majority of bartenders and bar patrons are still weighing the good, the bad, and (potentially) the ugly of what it means for the city. Here, we check in with some of the Big Easy’s cocktail pros about the challenges ahead.
T. Cole Newton, Twelve Mile Limit
“Twelve Mile Limit has been completely smoke-free for two years now, but I think that I should have the right to make that choice for myself. Bartenders and patrons can choose what kind of bars they frequent, and if they don’t want to be around smoke, they can go to one of the hundreds of bars that doesn’t allow it inside, like mine. It helped create a point of differentiation between us and some of the other bars in the area, which we now lose.
The people I’ve seen who are the most upset about this are bartenders who smoke and have chosen to work in bars that allow it. Guests can go outside, but bartenders don’t always have that kind of flexibility during their shifts.
Having said that, I think the fear that soon New Orleans will be just like every other city in America is greatly exaggerated. New Orleans has been weird, exotic, and dangerous for 300 years now. That isn’t about to change just because you have to go outside to smoke; after all, you can take your drink with you when you do, because we’re still a civilized people.” (Photo: Sundance TV)
Robin Renee, Kajun’s Pub
“I think we’ll be okay. A lot of people walk outside their house to smoke, so what’s the big deal, right? We have a nice patio outside and a nice area out front. I think it’s an adjustment that people have to get used to and say, ‘Okay, new rules.’ Personally, I don’t feel like the government should be able to tell the owner of the bar what they can do with their business. I think each individual business owner should have to right to decide. I stopped smoking last May, so maybe I would care more if I still smoked.” (Photo courtesy Robin Renee)
Abigail Gullo, SoBou
“I saw it happen in New York. It is sad at first, but then you soon forget what it was like when you could smoke in bars. You do, however, remember how bad your clothes and hair used to smell after a night out—and that’s when you are thankful for the smoking ban. The weather is better here and everyone could stand to smoke less anyway. I know some people say this is the beginning of the end of all that makes New Orleans unique, but we are what makes New Orleans—our culture and spirit—not where we smoke. We still have go cups. You can pry our go cups from our cold, dead hands.” (Photo: SoBou)
Chris Hannah, French 75
“I’ve been behind the French 75 bar for 11 years now. I’m bummed about the smoking ban, but do wonder if I’ll benefit from it.
My favorite comment at the bar thus far is this: ‘I hate the smoking ban. After Hurricane [Katrina], we had an insane influx of new residents into the city [and] that had never happened before. I always cry when I feel something from my childhood…in New Orleans is lost by the way things have changed after the hurricane. No cigarettes in bars is just another thing to remind me that the New Orleans I grew up with is gone.’
Personally, I hate ‘Everyday USA’ and this is a giant step towards [that]. I promise myself the day to-go cups are tampered with [I’ll] move to an island and forget America all together, because moving to New Orleans was my last attempt to do just that.” (Photo: Arnauds)
Katie May Ondrey, Pal’s Lounge (and The Abbey)
“It doesn’t bother me either way. I was working in Arizona when the smoking ban went into effect there, and it was one of the first major places. I was a smoker, so I voted against it.
I noticed that it impacts the first month of business because people say that they’re pissed off and that they’re going to rebel and drink at home. The first month of business sucks for bars. People still want to go out and socialize, so I don’t think it’s going to make a difference in the long run. Most people who come here and visit anyway are shocked that they can still smoke inside of a place.
I don’t like that the people didn’t get to make the decision and that it was left to the discretion of City Council. I know most of those people [City Council] aren’t going out and drinking and smoking and being in the environment, so they really don’t count. We didn’t make the decision as a people. We’re supposed to be able to vote for things like that, and we didn’t get a chance.
I don’t think it’s going to impact business at all. If anything, places are going to get more complaints about noise, especially neighborhood bars like Pal’s. Customers will be congregating outside, and neighbors across the street aren’t going to want to listen to a bunch of drunk people.” (Photo courtesy Katie Ondrey)