For those of you that are unaware, there is a wide reaching ordinance being proposed by New Orleans Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell that would ban smoking and all forms of vaping virtually everywhere in the city, inside and out. There has already been talk of amendments amongst council members, but that is not what I am going to talk about in this post. What I want to share is my experience and observations on what took place at the two town hall sessions before the council’s Community Development Committee on Weds., Jan. 7th and on Weds., Jan. 14th.
Hearing #1 took place at 10 am in the morning. The first thing that I noticed upon arriving was the number of people in attendance. The place was packed to capacity and many people were not allowed in to listen or to fill out a speaker card. I took a quick glance around the room and I immediately noticed that the room had been divided into three factions, one with smoke and vape-ban proponents heavily armed with t-shirts calling for a smoke free New Orleans. Smoke and vape ban opponents were identifiable by stickers provided by Freedom To Choose Nola . There was a sizable pro-vape ban contingent that brandished “I am not a smoker…..anymore!” t-shirts that lined the back wall and portions of the adjacent wall. I chose to sit amongst the 2nd group.
The first segment of the hearing was allotted to a panel of health industry lobbyists that took up a good portion of the 1st hour, leaving the public only one minute to speak per person in the remaining hour. All three factions had an impressive turnout, but a quick glance around the room told me that there were more opponents than proponents of the ban; and that’s not bad considering the amount of time, preparation, and money that is often afforded to pro-ban campaigners. Passing bans around the country is their job after all, and they’re quite good at it. Each panelist went on about the dangers of 2nd hand smoke and the need to protect employees from exposure in the workplace. When the panel (there were no detractors) was finally finished the public was invited (one by one) to speak.
My first observation was that ban proponents were well organized. They stayed with the uniform message of protecting workers and musicians from 2nd hand smoke while making it a point to wax quixotic on the new(er) danger of “passive aerosol”. They had the head of the Musician’s Union (of which I was briefly a member) Deacon John, musician Irvin Mayfield (who owns a smoke-free venue on Bourbon St.), the head of the local Musician’s Clinic, smoke-free volunteers, and a small smattering of smoke-free bar owners all calling for a smoke free New Orleans. Presumably, the latter group was merely in it just to “level the playing field”. Though not in attendance physically, even the local radio station has been campaigning with them (..my band was scheduled to do an on air performance a few months back...we were cancelled by management and never asked back…Coincidence? I can’t prove it, but I believe that there is a price to disagreeing with smoke ban proponents) via on-site ads and sponsored smoke-free shows. Never mind the fact that most live music venues in New Orleans, save for Bourbon St. (and there are even smoke-free venues there), are already smoke-free. The more trendy and upscale Frenchmen St. is currently about 95% smoke free. I only know of one venue there that allows smoking. Oh, and God bless him, they even had a minister get up and speak in favor a smoke free NOLA. I am sure that he is the type to frequent bars, live music venues and drinking establishments.
Listening to the pro-ban side and realizing the amount of power attached to it, my heart sank knowing the risk that I’d be taking as a local musician by speaking out against this ban, but I choose to speak out anyhow; it’s the way that I’m wired. I’ve never liked it much when other people tried to tell me how I lived my life. The first song that I ever sang in a band was a Who cover song….’nuff said.
Those opposed to the ban in its entirety were comprised of local casino representatives, local bar and casino workers (and there were a lot of them), an owner of several bars on Bourbon St., residents of the Quarter, and as far as I could tell, one lone musician: me. Even though I know musicians against that are the ban, I was the only musician to SPEAK out against the ban that day. There were quite a few people in our amalgamated and loosely aligned group of ban dissidents. In fact, it appeared to the eye that there were more us than “them”. Why didn’t more musicians speak out against the ban? My only guess would be that getting up there in front of so many powerful people can be quite an intimidating experience, especially in a climate where many of your potential employers are supportive of the opposition. Disagreeing with the establishment can be a scary thing when gigs and money are already scarce.
Our group was nothing like the more organized pro ban group that occupied the left side of the chamber. We had no professional lobbyists speaking on our behalf, no formal welcome committee, and no real organization. We each got up to tell our story (in one minute) on how and why we had come to oppose the ban. The reasons given varied from being about the potential for lost job and tourist revenue, lost revenue for the state (and thus, for the state police), lost freedom, lost private property rights, a loss of social cohesion and diversity, and the catastrophic loss of the laissez-faire attitude that New Orleans has come to be known and loved for. There was no one on our side to contest the “settled science” on 2nd hand smoke or the “dangers” of aerosol/vapor, save for me of course. My years (about 7 now) of reading and conducting research on the science and politics of smoking (and now vaping) bans have afforded me the luxury of coming across some potent and valuable information that calls the “settled science” of decades past into question. This is what I attempted to base the first 30 seconds of my time speaking on, with the remainder of my time spent on questioning why they would want to ban vapor products that harbor the potential to save lives. I showed them my Ploom tobacco vaporizer and I told them that this is what helped me to transition away from smoking entirely. I also told them how I had used it in a crowded non-smoking bar on Frenchmen St. and how no one had even noticed that I was doing so until a couple of patrons saw me partaking in the hand to mouth motion, of which one made it a point to marvel at the brilliance of the technology. The point that I was trying to make was that clearly my little vapor pipe is annoying to no one, not even in a non-smoking venue, so why ban it? I mentioned how vapor technology has the potential to save lives. I closed by saying that I oppose the ban in its entirety and that I supported the right of the property owner to choose between being a smoking or non-smoking establishment. I wanted to say more, but that was it: minute up.
Then came the e-vapers with their “I am not a smoker….anymore” t-shirts. As a vaper myself, I have to say that I was quite pleased to see them there…..more for the side of freedom I thought…As a proponent of harm reduction, I have to admit that I felt a sense of pride for them. Then one by one, vaping proponents took to the podium and proceeded to side with the pro-ban side by expressing their distaste of smoking and all things tobacco (I vape tobacco..I also have a couple of mods, but whatever…). I was mortified. They had thrown smokers (many of whom are musicians and my friends) under the bus. How could they have become so judgmental I wondered? Truth be told, only a few vapers had the chance to speak at the first session. No worries I thought, for surely the remaining vapers in the room would speak out on behalf of freedom of choice in the next round.
The pro-ban side began throwing in its two cents (mostly coming from health advocates) on how vapor should also be banned. The look on the faces of vaping advocates was pure astonishment, and rightfully so, for the same trusty strategy used against smokers was now being used on vapers. They/we were now getting thrown under the bus with the smokers. The clock hit 7:00 pm on the wall and the first session was over, much to the protest of many vapers who did not get the chance to speak. There were shouts of protest and a few vaping advocates were ejected from the room. The representative from the ALA was allowed to speak a SECOND time giving her the last word of the evening. Then the committee voted 3/2 to bring the ordinance, with amendments (more on the amendments as they become clear to me), to a vote before the entire council, but not before holding one more “open” public discussion to allow for more public “debate”.
Weds., January 14th @ 5:00 pm marked the beginning of the 2nd Town Hall discussion on Councilwoman Cantrell’s proposed ban on smoking and vaping in New Orleans.
Expecting another packed house, I arrived early. As expected, the pro-ban side had their army of ban proponents there before everyone else. It didn’t look good I thought as I sat there on the opposite side of the room anticipating the arrival of more like minds. Then much to my relief, more and more people began to fill up the chairs around me. Once again there was also a sizable group of vapers in the room by the time the session was about to get underway, but not as many as the week prior. In the end it appeared to my eye that the room had about an equal amount of pro and anti-ban proponents, along with the vapers, who tried to remain autonomous from the first two groups. This time there was an allotment of two minutes, rather than one, for each speaker. The room was divided roughly into three factions, just as it had been the week before, with the exception of some loosely integrated pockets.
On the fence about whether to fill out a speaker card for a 2nd time, I took the liberty of speaking once more. What the hell, I figured, I might as well try to finish what I couldn’t squeeze in the week prior. One minute was not nearly enough time to get my point across the last time, and I have since learned that neither is two. It takes a special set of skills to make a case about something in two minutes, but I’m learning.
Each side had roughly the same message as the week prior, save for some new and novel arguments relating to wild and far reaching claims about the dangers of 3rd hand smoke, and the possible use of cannabis in e-cigs. There was even reference made to the idea that e-cigarettes could be used for crack cocaine. There was also a fear that vaping could serve to “re-normalize” smoking (courtesy of the ALA representative). Ban proponents therefore made a special effort to focus on the demonization of e-cigarettes and aerosol. “E-cigarette aerosol is filled with formaldehyde, diethylene glycol, and tobacco specific nitrosamines..” cried one ban proponent. Vaping enthusiasts were not thrilled, and neither was I. I could see them shaking their heads in utter disbelief at the exaggerations being put forth by various health proponents. Ban proponents even brought in Louisiana Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans) to speak in favor of the comprehensive ban:
"I’m hopeful that next Thursday you get the support you need to make New Orleans and its citizens healthier,” she said. “This ordinance is a critical instrument in fighting for healthier air for all of us.”
OK, why is the government lobbying government to take away the rights of its own constituents I wondered? I thought that this was supposed to be a forum for the RESIDENTS and BUSINESS owners of New Orleans! How does a community defend itself from regulatory overreach when its own government is lobbying against the very constituents that it is supposed to represent? Furthermore, aren’t our representatives supposed to represent ALL of the people? Quickly I began to realize how futile my argument was. The decision likely had already been made.
They even brought in a pediatrician to speak on the danger that 3rd hand smoke poses to children when their parents come home with the smell of smoke on their clothes after being in a smoking allowed bar. No, I am NOT making that part up. He really said that 3rd hand smoke is dangerous and that "the children" need to be protected from it. In addition, there was one woman who howled into the microphone that she felt sick because she could smell the smoke on the clothes of the woman sitting next to her. “I feel like someone has just shot Novacaine into my nose” she howled. No. I am not making that part up either. Suspicious minds think that she merely had an aversion to sitting next to anyone on our side of the room that harbored an alternative opinion different to her own. She and her significant other proceeded (after her speech) to pick up their things and move to the center of the chambers…..where it was at least 1/2 full with smoke and vape ban opponents. Frustrated, she and her significant other picked up their things and left.
On Vapers and Quasi ANTZ Support..
I would like to conclude this post by saying this:
For those who are not familiar with the tactics of anti-tobacco campaigners, much of what I have described thus far should come off as being quite shocking. I have to admit that many of the claims made by anti-tobacco and anti-nicotine campaigners still continue to shock the hell out of me to this day; however, what really stunned me the most was when one after another, vaping advocates proceeded to side with anti forces, often clapping their hands and nodding in agreement with many of the claims made by pro ban speakers. WTF? How can they believe all of the lies about 2nd hand/3rd hand smoke and the “10 gazillion chemicals” in tobacco smoke and then in the same breath (pun intended) act surprised when the very same people exaggerate the risks from “passive vaping”? How could they be so blind I wondered? Even if we do manage to get vapor products exempted from this proposed ban, don’t they realize that the prohibitionists are masters of incremental subjugation with only one end game in mind? I realize that many vapers feel that they need to separate vaping from smoking. I get that. Vaping is NOT smoking. However, as a vaper myself I surmise that throwing smokers, service industry workers, and private business owners under the bus will only serve to leave us standing all alone when they come back for us next year; and they WILL be back for us next year. Count on it. They are already on our front porch. Furthermore, for those vapers who loathe all things tobacco, I have one question:
Don’t you remember where you came from?
The fact that smokers are habitually thrown under the bus by the ANTZ is par for the course in our neo-healthist (the irony here is that I’m somewhat of a health nut myself, but whatever…) world. It’s not “right” nor just to tell other people how to live their lives, but that is what we have come to expect from anti-smoking campaigners these days. What I didn’t anticipate was being sideswiped by fellow vapers, most of whom are former smokers like myself. I understand the anger amongst some against (certain) tobacco companies for what appears to be an effort to put many independently owned vape shops out of business, but how does directing your ire towards the people that you are purporting to care about help our cause? Why take out your anger, however direct or indirect, on smokers and other small business owners like yourself? That’s what the ANTZ do. We don’t need to perpetuate the lies and exaggerations of 2nd hand smoke in order to demonstrate that vaping is not smoking when the science is already clear on that. Why not focus on the bigger picture?
The Lesson Learned…..
The cause of freedom is not contingent upon the wants of one faction over another; that is the game that the ANTZ use to take freedoms from ALL of us. In any war the first casualty is truth. First they come for me, then they come for you. No one wins in such an environment. This is not a zero sum game. Freedom and the overall message of harm reduction are synonymous with one another. Selling out for short term gain equates to long term loss for everyone and on a multitude of levels. Unfortunately, there are some people out there that think that it’s their job to take away the people’s freedom.