Thursday is the last day of the 2010 fiscal calendar, which means the next day marks the first anniversary of Montana’s indoor smoking ban in bars and taverns.
Although the facts about the effect of the ban’s first year are limited, there are still many strong opinions about the issue from several sides.
The strongest mix of these views are held by Montana Tavern Association members.
The “hospitality industry” advocacy group held its annual meeting in Havre two weeks ago where many of the members voiced concerns. According to most members, the ban has hurt business, though those with gambling took the biggest hit.
Some of the limited facts that are available are state gambling tax revenues for the past year.
Numbers released by the Montana Department of Justice show that in the quarter immediately following the implementation of the indoor smoking ban, gambling revenue dropped sharply — by 18 percent — then evened out.
The last quarter has even showed a small increase statewide.
The figures for Hill County, in particular, closely reflected the state numbers:
• The difference between this time last year and now also shows an 18 percent drop.
• The difference between three months ago and now was negligible, less than .2 percent.
The drop last autumn came at a time when numbers were already falling. The gambling tax numbers had been dropping before the smoking ban when the recession starting dampening the global economy.
Even with the 18 percent drop, the revenue is still higher than it was six years ago, not counting inflation. Including inflation, it’s higher than eight years ago.
Darrell Keck, owner of the Dixie Inn in Shelby, said that he had a large number of smokers in his establishment and has suffered more than most.
“It’s been extremely devastating to our business,” Keck said, adding that he has lost revenue from “people that were gamblers that were not necessarily heavy drinkers, but they were smokers mainly. It’s ruined the entire camaraderie in our business. They don’t stick around as long. They go out, have a smoke, they might come in for a shorter amount time, and they leave.”
During the four-year moratorium on the indoor smoking ban in bars, Keck spent $18,000 constructing sliding glass doors between his bar and his restaurant and ventilation so that his restaurant could be smoke-free. Now that no smoking is allowed inside at all he is unhappy about the waste of the expense.
Others didn’t lose as much and see the benefit of the ban, but recognize the harm to their business.
Jupe Compton, owner of the Palace on 1st Street in Havre, has mixed views.
“Truthfully, I like that it smells better in here, but it has hurt my business,” Compton said. “Especially the gambling, which is really the gravy of this business.”
His bartenders said they appreciate not having to wash their clothes every night and having the washing of ashtrays removed from their closing routine.
Other employees have felt the health benefit of the ban.
Jerilynn Thompson, a bartender at PJ’s Restaurant, Lounge & Casino, has been in the bar business for 29 years. She said that since the ban she has noticed an improvement in the establishment and her own lungs.
“I know the air quality’s a lot better,” Thompson said. “I haven’t had an asthma attack since they stopped smoking in here.”
Some bar owners have concerns about the smoking ban that have nothing to do with health or gambling loss.
Cathy Crane, owner of the Wagon Wheel Bar in Choteau, and Pierre Augare, owner of Pierre’s in Dupuyer, said that they wished that the policies had more uniform enforcement.
They said they see bars that are bending the rules to the point of breaking, and it is hurting their business.
The smoking ban allows businesses to construct a smoking area onto the tavern, as long as it has no more than three walls and no ceiling.
Crane and Augare described some taverns having fully covered add-ons they described as identical to a garage.
By breaking the rules these establishments attract more customers and hurt the one’s that are actually legitimate, Crane said.
Crane said she didn’t want to say anything for fear of rocking the boat and hurting her relationship with her customers any further.
As the policy matures, kinks are being ironed out, Crane said.