Last drag

Once the statewide smoking ban goes into effect Oct. 1, a large part of Montana's bar culture will, for better or worse, go up in smoke

| September 24, 2009

It's hard to defend smokers anymore. Mountains of medical evidence confirm that cigarette smoke destroys your lungs and leads to a laundry list of other ailments. Second-hand smoke proves just as dangerous. For years, federal and state governments sensed an easy and defensible target, and imposed heavy restrictions on the price and availability of cigarettes, as well as where you can smoke them. Just this week, Uncle Sam even banned cloves, or flavored cigarettes, entirely.

Montana finally catches up with the national piling on this week. The Montana Clean Indoor Air Act, which was drafted during the 2005 Legislature, allowed bars and casinos to gradually transition to smoke-free over the last four years. That buffer period officially ends Oct. 1.

When that last cigarette butt gets snuffed out inside a Montana tavern next Wednesday night, a certain iconic imagery will go out along with it. No more literary references to smoky barrooms. No more killing time on the barstool, alone, with the aide of a cigarette. No more hippies able to sneak a few tokes of weed under the cloud of tobacco smoke.

There are a million reasons to cheer the ban, but still a few reasons to lament its arrival. With that, we sent five writers to some of the last remaining smoker-friendly havens for one last drag.

Small-town bars fear the brunt of the ban

Out at Harold's Club in Milltown, talk of the smoking ban lingers at the bar about as long as a shot of Don Julio. Those with fresh-cracked packs of cigarettes next to their Budweiser coasters don't seem bothered at first, either out of indifference or insecurity.

The bartender, Jenni Regan, passes me a pack of Marlboro Reds and a Pabst. I burn through a smoke and slide down the bar to join a few chuckling locals. The group acknowledges the ban sporadically, breaking up any serious commentary with discussion of the latest social goings-on.

"Most guys won't want to step outside for it," says Regan, who recently returned to tending bar after maternity leave. "[Management's] talked about putting in a fire pit. That'll be cute— bunch of guys standing around a fire out back smoking."

Harold's boasts a friendliness and intimacy just shy of an episode of Cheers. You could count the number of one-time or impulse drop-ins on two hands and still find your thumbs dangling.

Regulars will feel the ban worst, everyone agrees. Smoking stands out as an almost sacred practice here–the Harold's Club MySpace page boasts, "Yes you can still smoke inside!!!" The bar's signature decorations show a mounted goat and a bighorn sheep protected by giant plastic bubbles, placed there to protect the taxidermy from the smoke.

Will the bubbles disappear come October, I ask, lighting up another.

"Probably not," Regan says as she cracks another line of Bud Lights for the corner boys. "Just in case the thing doesn't last."

Repeal is a desperate wish for locals accustomed to the nub of a filter between their knuckles. In other words, most of Harold's customer base holds out hope of an 11th-hour reprieve.

"Les comes in every Friday night and just sits back there and smokes, one after the other," says Mary Pat, who everyone knows as just Mary Pat. "I've never seen a guy make that much ash."

Thing is, the bars in downtown Missoula likely won't be hit as bad, Regan suggests. They can fall back on non-regulars, the throngs that pop in every weekend regardless of the smoking ban. Harold's clientele is different.

Take Joel Smith, who regards the presence of a foreign smoker next to him with muted skepticism. Mention of the ban generates a subtle twitch.

"I don't have to drink beer here," Smith whispers.

And therein lies the rub for smaller taverns like Harold's. The ban could, as Regan fears, keep loyal patrons from crossing the threshold.

The reaction is a little less dire at the Lumberjack Saloon off Highway 12. The place is vacant when I walk in mid-afternoon on a recent Thursday. Anna Tripp assures me from behind the bar that I just caught them on the slowest day she's seen this summer. There's usually a line of faces puffing away. And the ban?

"Honestly, I don't think it'll hurt all that much," Tripp says.

The Jack, as it's more commonly known, draws campers, hunters and big crowds for weekend musical gigs.

"We've got a really nice patio," explains Tripp, "and we've got a huge bonfire pit."

John Van Ackeren joins in the conversation after placing a food order. I pass him a cigarette and he justifies his camo pants by telling me he's been elk hunting all day. A few bugles, he says, but no sightings.

Ackeren lives in Salt Lake City now, flipping a foreclosure house he bought earlier this year. But he called Missoula home for 10 years and even worked a stint at the Jack–one of his choice bars when he jets back for hunting season. He's a social smoker, he says, so his personal stock in the ban is far from heated.

"I guarantee it'll cut my smoking down," he says.

Tripp pours a second round as we discuss the more obvious benefits of the statewide policy: less stink on your clothes, more tolerable hangovers. But Ackeren gets stuck on the other side of the issue.

"You know, it's one thing to have regulations and such," he says. "But on the other hand, it's somebody's bar and they really should be able to run their own business how they want."

Sure, the Jack–like Harold's or most other outlying bars near Missoula–might see a few regulars a little less often, Tripp admits. But most will likely adapt to new strictures fast. If that doesn't work, there's always the sign above the Jack's bar to fall back on: "No Whining."

—Alex Sakariassen

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