A decision made four years ago in the Legislature will soon kick in across the state as Montana bars, restaurants and casinos go smoke-free on Oct. 1. And while the change rankles those with familiar routines of sitting down at their favorite bar with a drink and a cigarette after a long day, the exodus to the outdoors seems to be greeted by many smokers with a sigh of resignation.
“It seems pretty much like they’ve just accepted it,” Patty Higgins, a bartender at the Remington in Whitefish, said of her smoking clientele. “A lot of them don’t believe it’s going to happen.”
But that doesn’t mean she likes the imminent change, even though her workplace will be smoke-free.
“I’m a smoker; if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t work in a smoking bar,” Higgins added. “I don’t like choices being taken away.”
Over at the Bandit Saloon in Columbia Falls, bartender Scott Blakesley said his employers have been taking steps to prepare customers for the change. One year ago, the Bandit stopped selling cigarettes. The bar has also hung signs notifying patrons of the Oct. 1 switch, and cleared out a small pavilion area outdoors behind the bar for smokers.
“Some people will like it and some people won’t like it,” Blakesley said. “Not until it gets taken away will they say a whole lot about it.”
He’s not sure whether business for the gaming machines will drop off, but he anticipates a pickup in sales of over-the-counter alcohol, as more smokers drink at home. An influx of new non-smoking customers might compensate for a drop-off from smokers.
“You lose some, but you’ll gain some in the long run,” Blakesley said.
When it takes effect here, the Montana Clean Indoor Act will join the state with 23 others across the country that have adopted similar laws. Though the bill passed the Legislature in 2005, the delay in taking effect is due to a compromise struck between those who opposed the bill and those who supported it.
Mark Staples, attorney for the Montana Tavern Association, recalled negotiations over the bill were tough for his organization, in that the anti-smoking side wielded an extremely powerful bargaining chip: Should the smoking ban fail, those who supported it planned to mount a ballot initiative instituting the ban that almost certainly would have passed, given public support for restricting smoking in indoor public places. Most polls show roughly 80 percent of Montanans support the Indoor Clean Air Act, while 20 percent oppose it.
“In a very difficult decision, the (MTA) leadership decided it would be better to give the businesses about five years to transition to non-smoking than to have it dropped on them via public ballot, literally overnight,” Staples said. “The stark reality of it was remaining bars and taverns in Montana that allowed smoking were swimming against the absolutely overwhelming tide of sentiment.”
Many bar owners and patrons, however, maintain that the smoking ban is an infringement on the property rights of business owners. Prior to the 2009 Legislature, Sen. Jerry Black, R-Shelby, introduced a bill to exempt some 1,400 Montana bars and casinos from the smoking ban, but public outcry almost immediately forced him to drop it, calling it “dead on arrival.” The MTA and Gaming Industry Association of Montana opposed Black’s legislation in order to honor the deal they made with health groups in 2005.
Though some bar owners may have held out hope that the Legislature would kick the smoking ban down the road a few years, most have prepared their businesses for the transition.
Leslie Deck, tobacco use prevention program coordinator for the Flathead City-County Health Department, said she has been receiving calls from bar and casino owners inquiring about what type of structures they can build to shield smokers from the elements without violating the new law. The basic rule, she said, is that the space can’t be enclosed. Lean-tos, shacks with an open wall or covered decks are legal; sealing off a room in a building separate from the bar for smokers isn’t.
“Bars are trying to get creative,” Deck said. “They’re thinking a good ventilation system is going to work, and that’s not going to work.”
She has also fielded inquiries from businesses as to how the smoking ban will be enforced. After receiving a complaint about a bar or casino allowing indoor smoking, Deck said she will send the establishment an educational letter about the ban. A second violation earns the bar a warning, while a third violation in three years gets a fine from the county attorney’s office of up to $500. Subsequent violations can run even higher.
But neither Deck nor Staples anticipate many bars or casinos will violate the smoking ban.
“I think people will abide by the law and do their best to make it work for their business,” Staples said. “We have our fingers crossed that people who said they would patronize these businesses if they would go smoke-free, go to them in droves.”
As for any decline in customers these businesses may see, Deck echoed many bartenders who believe a loss in business from smokers will be made up for by nonsmokers.
“What we’ve seen in other states, they see a little bit of a dip in the business and it bounces right back, because they’re bringing in a whole new group of customers,” Deck said. “I understand bars’ fears, but other states have shown us that it doesn’t last.”
“The fear of the unknown is much worse than what’s actually going to happen,” she added. “It’s not punishment, it’s not looking down on smokers, it’s just protecting the rights of employees and other people coming in these businesses – they get to breath clean air.”
On a recent afternoon at the Eagles Club in Kalispell, some happy hour drinkers contemplated the imminent ban as the smoke from their cigarettes curled toward the ceiling.
Clare Johnson, a non-smoker who previously owned a bar in Kalispell, called the ban “the best thing that ever happened.”
“I’m glad, because I don’t have to have second-hand smoke anymore,” Johnson said. “It won’t change for me, I’ll just be happy that I don’t have the person next to me smoking.”
But down the bar, James Daugharty sees the ban as an infringement on his rights, and the property rights of business owners
“I feel my civil rights are being trampled – I feel I should be able to smoke in an establishment and make up my own mind,” Daugharty said.
He said he has several friends turning their garages into makeshift smoking lounges, installing carpeting, big-screen TVs and planning to invite others over to smoke with freedom.
“Anytime you try to keep something from the people, they seem to find a way, especially a sweep this broad,” Daugharty said. “They look at it as the second coming of the speakeasy.”
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