Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Longtime holdout New Orleans just banned smoking in bars. But there are better measurements of what most major cities are doing to clear the air.
In the early hours of Wednesday, smokers pulled their last drags and stubbed out their last butts in bars in New Orleans. As of midnight, the city became the latest to adopt a policy prohibiting smoking in bars, restaurants, and casinos.
As Willie Nelson once said: Turn out the lights, the party's over. If a smoking ban can find its way onto the books in New Orleans—a city that depends on tourism and a reputation for, you know, being New Orleans—then there's no hope for smokers in bars and restaurants anywhere. Smokers, your time is up.
As it turns out, New Orleans may have been the last true holdout among major U.S. cities. More than 30 of the most populous cities across the nation now have smoking bans of some form or another in place: local or state, comprehensive or with qualifications. The biggest exception being Las Vegas, which is, well, Las Vegas.
Do a search for lists of cities with smoking bans, however, and it might seem like cities aren't doing much at all to stamp out public smoking. That may be a result of the fact that we still evaluate how much a city tolerates public smoking using criteria locked in years or decades ago. Now that dozens and dozens cities have adopted some kind of smoking ban, it may be time to rethink how we grade cities on going smoke free. All or nothing isn't cutting it.
For example: In its report on the New Orleans smoking ban, The New York Times provides Philadelphia as an example of a major city without a comprehensive smoking ban, citing a list maintained by Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, a lobbyist organization. That list may be accurate, but it's somewhat misleading.
Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, a lobbyist organization, maintains one map of states and municipalities that guarantee 100-percent smoke-free workplaces, restaurants, and bars. The group keeps a close watch, and updated its info this month. This map doesn't include Philadelphia. But a different list of municipalities does include Philly. This second list shows that Philadelphia passed an ordinance that ensures that all restaurants are 100 percent smoke free, even if the city lacks similar policies guaranteeing 100-percent smoke-free workplaces and bars.
On that score, Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights is correct—Philly's bars are not 100 percent smoke-free. Yet bar patrons at Philadelphia bars may encounter less second-hand smoke than those in cities with purportedly stricter smoking bans.
Since it passed its smoking ban in 2007, Philadelphia has offered a certain number of waivers to bars that ask for an exemption and meet specific criteria. More than 70 bars have received waivers since the ban was adopted, most of them granted early on. Last year, only four bars requested waivers; the city has indicated that it may consider legislation to close the loophole entirely.
Back in 2008, Philadelphia Weekly took a stab at estimating how many bars are located in Philadelphia: "approximately 252,925 different bars, brewpubs, taverns, and gin joints." (A slight exaggeration.) Of hundreds of bars in Philadelphia, smokers can smoke inside maybe 75 of them.
Consider, too, that (unlike most major cities) Philadelphia prohibits smoking in outdoor areas and patios maintained by restaurants and bars. Which is not nothing. The one other city among the 10 most populous cities with a similar law is L.A.—another city that lacks a comprehensive smoking ban on the books.
Los Angeles doesn't need the local law, exactly: California state law prohibits smoking in bars and restaurants across the state. In fact, in addition to banning smoking in parks and on patios, L.A. has gone further by banning electronic cigarettes, or vaping, in any public place where smoking is prohibited by local or state law.
But since California doesn't provide 100-percent smoke-free bars, restaurants, and workplaces, neither does Los Angeles. And until those cities do pass comprehensive smoke-free bans, they won't make the A-list at Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights. Note that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a similar list of cities and states with comprehensive smoke-free laws. The CDC list numbers only 16 such cities. But that doesn't come close to accounting for all the cities with working smoking bans in place.
LIz Williams, a project manager at Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, says that the organization is focused absolutely on worksites and workers' rights, not on the relative degree to which cities are exorcising public smoking.
"Bars and casinos are the worksites where people remain most exposed. And those worksites are the ones most commonly left out by exemptions," she says, noting that the New Orleans ban is comprehensive. "We want to make sure that cities and states are protecting their most vulnerable workers."
Protecting workers is, of course, a worthy goal. Still, smoking bans affect other areas of business. As one woman testified in Philadelphia, conventions avoid cities that coddle smokers: "They are increasingly looking for a smoke-free meeting experience. Not just a smoke-free venue, but a smoke-free city, with as few exemptions as possible."
As Williams points out, some 890 municipalities and 30 states have banned smoking entirely across indoor workplaces, restaurants, and bars. It may be time to adopt a more nuanced look at grading how smoke free a city truly is—beyond the binary question of whether it bans smoking throughout every last bar in town. Some cities that don't wind up doing more.
Giving a city a smoke-free grade—A through F—would do better to capture the extra lengths to which some cities go to curb public smoking. Even the cities with a few narrow smoking-ban exemptions. Philadelphia and L.A. more closely fit the bill as smoke-free cities, in some ways, than New York or New Orleans.
This post has been updated.