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Bar Owners Urge Alexandria Council Not To Enact Smoking Ban

About 25 bar owners and employees attended a public meeting to discuss the proposal at City Hall on Thursday, and not one of them supported the smoking cigarettes ban, according to an informal poll conducted by City Councilman Harry B. Silver.

The ordinance would expand the city's smoking cigarettes ban in restaurants and most workplaces in the city to include bars and gaming establishments such as bingo halls. In addition, all hotels would be required to be smoke-free, while smoking cigarettes would be banned at nursing homes and within 50 feet of all public buildings and facilities.

Bar owners who attended the meeting said they should have the right to choose whether to allow employees and patrons to smoke, and if they're forced to eliminate smoking cigarettes, it will hurt their profit margins.

"Do smokers not have rights, or is it just people who don't smoke?" asked Larry Dickerson, owner of the Chalet Lounge on North Bolton Avenue.

"It is gonna hurt my business, there's no doubt about it," said Clyde "C.B." Bennett, who owns Sharkey's Sports Bar & Grill on Coliseum Boulevard.

Bob Mahfouz, owner of the Bayview Yacht Club on Windsor Place, said there's no question that if patrons are banned from smoking cigarettes in Alexandria bars they will just take their business elsewhere. That's why he said he would like to see the City Council and Rapides Parish Police Jury get together to form a parishwide smoking cigarettes ban.

"This is business we're talking about, not whether smoking cigarettes is good or bad," Mahfouz said.

Officials from the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living attended Thursday's meeting to make a pitch about the health hazards of second-hand smoke cigarettes in bars to both employees and patrons.

"It's quite clear this is an issue that a lot of people care about," said Carrie Broussard, policy and advocacy manager for the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living.

The organization is part of a statewide tobacco control program funded by a state excise tax on tobacco passed in 2002. Its goals are:

~ To eliminate exposure to secondhand smoke.
~ To prevent initiation of tobacco use among youth.
~ To promote tobacco cessation among youth and adults.
~ To identify and eliminate tobacco-related disparities.
~ To facilitate effective coordination of all tobacco control and prevention initiatives throughout the state of Louisiana.

Dr. David Holcombe, regional administrator and medical director for Region VI of the state Office of Public Health, said he was prohibited from commenting specifically about the proposed ordinance. However, he said, unequivocally, that a ban on smoking cigarettes is needed.

"Smoking kills you," he said. "Not only does it kill you, it kills the people around you. ... It isn't just a personal choice."

But bar owners argued that it's precisely about that. They say employees aren't forced to work at bars, and patrons don't have to show up with their business.

Pat Burns, who has worked for 22 years at the Sportsman Lounge on MacArthur Drive, said nobody is forcing her to work at the bar. Nor is anyone forcing customers to come to drink and socialize.

"No one has ever grabbed somebody off MacArthur Drive and dragged them into Sportsman Lounge and forced them to work, as far as I know," she said.

"I've never smoked a day in my life, but when I got into the club business I knew what to expect," said Fred Thompson, owner of Club 318 on Lee Street.

Charlie Anderson, commander of the VFW Post 8852 on Lower Third Street, said bar employees know they will have to deal with smoking cigarettes just like military members, police officers and firefighters know they will face hazards in the line of their duty.

"If you decide to work in a bar, you accept certain kinds of health risks," he said.

Ultimately, the choice whether to ban smoking cigarettes in bars belongs in the hands of the seven members of the Alexandria City Council. The ordinance will be introduced at the council meeting on July 26, City Attorney Chuck Johnson said. It will be voted on for final adoption on Aug. 9.

Silver was the only council member to speak at Thursday's meeting, while members Jim Villard and Mitzi Gibson also were in attendance. Bennett said it was "a slap in the face" that the other council members didn't attend to hear what the bar owners had to say.

The fact it's come down to the City Council telling bar owners how to run their businesses was another point of contention on Thursday.

"I don't like the government coming in and telling me what to do," said Ken Fuller, owner of West End Lounge on Rapides Avenue.

"I don't like to be dictated to," Mahfouz said.