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Local bar, casino owners react to smoking ban

by Canda Harbaugh & Western News
| September 28, 2009 12:00 AM

Local bar and casino owners are begrudgingly preparing to turn their businesses smoke-free as their four-year grace period from the statewide smoke ban will expire Thursday. 

Some establishments are constructing outdoor smoking shelters to dull the sharpness of Montana’s changeable weather, and all bars and casinos will be hanging up fresh “no smoking” signs Thursday morning.

With exception to standalone bars and casinos, all indoor public places in Montana went smoke-free October 2005.

“The need to breathe smoke-free air has priority over the desire to smoke,” the measure reads.

Libby bar and casino owners are complaining less about the smoke ban negatively affecting business and more about the government’s heavy hand getting into individual rights.

“As far as (banning smoking at) a restaurant, a grocery store, a hardware store, I can see that. That is a place everyone has to go – bars and casinos are not,” said Maggie Clemons, owner of Maggie’s Casino. “I should have the right to put up signs that say ‘smoking building: enter at your own risk.’ People have the choice to come in or go elsewhere.”

It appears that, at least in Libby, the current smoke-free bars and casinos are a result of the 2005 legislation. The Crosscut Casino, for example, was built after the smoke ban passed and, according to employee Kim Convillion, owners “just figured there was no sense in messing up the machines and the interior for three years of smoking.”

Treasure Mountain Casino and Restaurant went smoke-free in 2005, said owner Mike Munro, because the only other options were either to prohibit minors from entering the building or remodel to physically separate the bar and casino from the restaurant.

With all businesses now smoke-free, it may level the playing field, though Clemons complains that as close as Bonners Ferry, Idaho, people can enjoy a cigarette in a bar or casino.

Clemons smokes, all but one of her employees smoke and she says most of her patrons also enjoy cigarettes. That’s why she said she built the casino five years ago with a high-quality ventilation system. Now she has constructed a roofed shelter beside the casino for smokers.

Clemons is uncertain whether or not business will slow, but does point out that smoking is why some people frequent the casino.

“There’s a lot of people that the only reason they come in and sit for five or 10 minutes is to relax and have a cigarette during their lunchtime,” she said, “and they don’t smoke at home or anywhere else.”

Corinne Vincent, a patron of Maggie’s, said that she will still frequent the casino regardless of the smoke ban.

“I’m a smoker and I really don’t have a problem with it (the smoke ban),” Vincent said. “If you want to have a cigarette, I guess you can just go outside. I think it will be an adjustment for a lot of people, but the law is the law and we’ll deal with it.”

Leann Monigold, manager of the Gold Pan Casino, believes that it may affect business in the short-term.

“I think people won’t stay as long. I think it will really affect business at least for a while,” Monigold said. “Once everybody kind of gets used to the fact that that’s the way it is, it will probably pick back up again.”

Monigold plans to equip the Gold Pan’s new smoking shelter with a heater for the crisp winter months. 

Sandy Doubek, owner of the Pastime Bar, doesn’t have the space outside to build a smoking shelter. She doesn’t think the ban will change people’s habits of frequenting the bar.

“I’m kind of thinking people will still come out,” Doubek said. “They’ll just be standing on the sidewalk smoking.”

Some employees who smoke and work at the same time will have to adjust, Doubek said.

“All of my employees smoke so I’m thinking that might be a problem,” Doubek said. “I’m probably going to have set up some kind of rule that they can’t be outside (smoking) when the place is full.”

Bar and casino owners point out that the majority of their customers smoke, but if their business is smoke-free, they may attract a new non-smoking clientele.

Monigold said it’s possible, but looking over her casino on a Thursday afternoon, she counted only one in eight customers without a pack of cigarettes close by. She felt the trend wasn’t likely to shift very much.


Montana’s Clean Indoor Air Act

• Smoking is banned in all indoor public places. The final phase kicks in Thursday, outlawing smoking in all bars and casinos.

• Penalties for owners, managers or employees who allow smoking inside an establishment range from a warning on the first offense to a $500 fine on the fifth offense.

• Indoor smoking is allowed at private residences (unless it is also used as a daycare), in private motor vehicles, in smoking-designated hotel rooms and on sites that are used for cultural activities by American Indians.