By Onjewel Smith, Southern States Strategist

Can’t stop, won’t stop—that has been my mantra the last several years. Although it serves as a general principal for life, it is especially fitting for the work we are doing in Southern states. My states have taken a lot of criticism over the years for being slow to pass strong policies—or any policy in some cases, but don’t think that we haven’t been working. We haven’t stopped fighting for smokefree air! We’ve had some notable successes and unfortunate defeats in recent years, but we are doing our best to make our wins meaningful.

The past year has been a really challenging time for passing smokefree policies. Restrictions placed on being out in public, whether from local or state government, or our employers, or our own safety concerns made it really difficult for our coalitions to exercise best practices and engage in ways that have amplified our efforts. The casino and tobacco industries have the leverage of access and money; on the other hand, our strength is in our numbers, and smokefree partners have historically leveraged the power of the people…like, in person to demonstrate an overwhelming support for smokefree protections.

COVID made us rethink our strategies. We had to change our bait…hook, line, and sinker. I grew up in Louisiana, which is known as the “Sportsman’s Paradise.” It’s even on our license plates, so it must be true! Our work has been a lot like a long day of fishing in the bayous.

Alligators Lurking in the Waters

You know how you can always see the eyes and nose of the alligators in the swamp? Yep…that’s Big Tobacco and Big Casino laying low and surveying the landscape. Politically unfriendly state legislatures have kept us from making significant progress at the statewide level, so coalitions have been chipping away at the local level in Southern states. The tobacco and casino industries are always keeping an eye on local efforts to see where and when we get momentum. Even with these gators in the water, we’re still fishing for some wins.

Onjewel Smith & partner Ashley Hebert at a bike ride media event in support of Smokefree Shreveport ordinance.

Don’t Toss Out the Little Ones

The biggest lesson learned thus far: don’t toss out the little ones. The persistence of local partners to keep the urgent need for smokefree environments on the radar in Louisiana was finally enough to motivate a local council member to strengthen smokefree protections in Shreveport, Louisiana. While having a smokefree champion in a Southern city was a significant accomplishment, the proposed ordinance would have maintained the special exemption for casinos – leaving thousands of gaming and hospitality workers exposed to secondhand smoke. The industry, and some council members, argued that it was too risky to prohibit smoking in Shreveport’s casinos without a similar law for casinos in the neighboring city of Bossier.

Coalition partners worked to get casinos written into this ordinance and then had to fight to get council support with just a few weeks before the final vote. Our campaign in Shreveport quickly gained national attention as the casino industry was put on high alert about yet another local effort to include casinos in a smokefree policy. Louisiana had already proven that local government had the will to put people first with big wins in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, but the industry really uses doom and gloom scare tactics to undermine public health progress. They will do anything to avoid a “loss” on their record.

It was an intense campaign. The ordinance passed in June 2020, but heavy casino pushback was enough to get council members to delay implementation for more than a year. Just as the implementation date approached, industry allies convinced a council member to introduce an amendment to exempt the casinos completely just days before the ordinance was scheduled to take effect.

You would think that the casinos would hate to waste what they invested in preparing for the new law, you know, like cleaning the carpets, printing signage, and creating an outdoor space for people who wish to smoke, but nope…they had nothing to complain about because they never intended to comply in the first place. They were confident that they could wiggle out of the new law. They did nothing to prepare. Shame on them. They didn’t realize that we can’t stop…and won’t stop fighting for smokefree protections.

Even after a win (of any size) we know we have to stay vigilant. The industry never really accepts defeat and is always working to maintain its status quo. It took us more than a year to defend our win, but I’m happy to say that as of August 1, 2021, Shreveport’s bars and casinos are smokefree. What a catch!

Snagging the Big Fish

Working with our coalition partners, we made big waves when New Orleans passed a comprehensive smokefree ordinance that included the world-famous Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, and the Harrah’s New Orleans Casino. It was a major victory for a Southern tourist destination, but more importantly for proving that local municipalities can and will pass an ordinance to include casinos and gaming. The ripple effect soon hit Baton Rouge, the state capital, which passed a similar ordinance that covered its three riverboat casinos. With prize fish in hand, we took our fight to Atlanta, Georgia, to pass a comprehensive ordinance that included provisions to eliminate the smoking rooms at the world’s busiest airport!

Atlanta’s smokefree ordinance went into effect on January 2, 2020, making the city’s bars, restaurants, hotels, music venues, convention facilities, and the world’s busiest airport — Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport — smokefree.  As the cultural capital of the South, Atlanta’s new smokefree law sends a strong message that smokefree is the new normal. Now, the millions of visitors who travel to the city for conventions, meetings, sporting events, concerts, shopping, or leisure will be able to enjoy their time in smokefree environments. More importantly, the city’s blue-collar and hospitality workers, musicians, and other entertainers will no longer have to jeopardize their health to earn a living. 

The one(s) that got away

Sometimes, the fish gets away, as was the case in Macon, Georgia, several years ago. On the day of the vote, our coalition went into the meeting with the winning votes in hand, but the overwhelmingly divisive political rhetoric spoiled the day. The opposition “alligators” were so aggressive that our ordinance champion refused to come out of her office to attend the meeting for the vote. Political divisiveness can mean a really dark time for smokefree efforts…but we never stop working. The smokefree movement is bi-partisan. After all, everyone needs to breathe smokefree air!

Most recently, our campaign in Lake Charles, Louisiana, came to a halting stop as stay-at-home orders, coupled with a city council that did not allow streaming of the meeting or virtual testimony, restricted our coalition’s ability to appear before council, virtually or in-person, to support the proposed ordinance.

Pictured: a pre-pandemic smokefree tabling event in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Work will continue in Southwest Louisiana! Hear from Lake Charles LA based, two-time Grammy nominee Zydeco legend Sean Ardoin on the need for smokefree environments to support the health of Louisiana musicians.

The Tipping Point?

So much is happening in Louisiana right now. The Shreveport win is a critical benchmark for Louisiana’s tipping point for a statewide law. It underscores the need for a statewide law to ensure a level playing field for casino operators throughout the state – which is what the industry insists is its point of contention. So, apparently, we want the same things. We want Bossier casinos playing by the same rules. We want Lake Charles casinos, which employ nearly 2500 workers, to be healthy workplaces like other regions of the state. We want Louisiana to thrive and its residents and visitors to fully enjoy all of its cultural economy, including its distinct food, unique live music, and thrilling gaming industry.

Cutting Bait

It’s easier said than done sometimes, but we will walk away from a bad ordinance. We had to walk away from bad policy in Augusta, Georgia*, more than once. It’s a tough decision, especially when significant resources (time, money, and people) have been invested in a campaign, but we can’t afford to reel in any bad policies. Fixing a bad policy is even harder than passing a good one. Persistence paid off, as the third time was the charm, and Augusta now has one of the strongest smokefree ordinances in the state of Georgia.

*Now, we’re fighting to protect, not pass, Augusta’s comprehensive ordinance.

Emerging Issues in Louisiana

The 2021 legislative session was a forewarning for our coalition and other public health allies throughout the state. Louisiana came closer than any other Southern state to legalizing recreational marijuana. If recreational marijuana is legalized before a comprehensive statewide smokefree law is passed and in effect, we can expect secondhand marijuana exposure at any place that allows smoking under the current law. In fact, this threat will be tested sooner than that as a law allowing “inhalation” of all forms of medical marijuana will go into effect January 1, 2022. To be clear, that’s bars, casinos, a percentage of hotel rooms, nursing homes, and other places where the public will be exposed. We MUST get a comprehensive statewide smokefree law passed this next session.

Taking the Local Fight to Mississippi

I’ve put down my fishing pole, and now I’m like a boxer in the corner waiting for the bell to ding. Bring on the next contender…Mississippi! Our sustained wins in Louisiana should give us the momentum we need to cross over into Mississippi territory. If Shreveport can be successful with Bossier right next door, there is no argument for Biloxi vs Gulfport. And, with Shreveport and Baton Rouge operating smokefree, Vicksburg, Mississippi, has no excuse.  As for Tunica and Philadelphia…they’re on the list, too.

We’re taking the fight to Mississippi because their workers deserve to have someone fight for their right to a healthy, smokefree workplace. These workers shouldn’t have to sacrifice their health for their job.

This work is hard, but we can’t stop and won’t stop fighting. We hope you stay in this fight with us!

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Onjewel Smith

Onjewel Smith, Southern States Strategist, has worked in the nonprofit sector for more than 25 years helping organizations and communities build capacity for sustainable change. Throughout her career, she has provided technical assistance in the areas of community organizing, grassroots advocacy, and social justice issues.

This article was printed in our newsletter UPDATE, and mailed to our supporters last month.