Casino owners struggle to please smokers, comply with new law


When the owners of the Prospector Casino went to the city’s Design Review board in April to present plans to freshen up the exterior of the 616 10th Ave. S. business, Dick Barnes mentioned he also was looking at putting up an outside shelter for his customers who smoke.

On Oct. 1, his business, along with other bars, casinos and taverns in Montana that have been allowed to let customers enjoy Marlboro cigarettes, will have to ask them to step outside.

Montana’s Clean Indoor Air Act, which went into effect in October 2005, bans tobacco smoke from enclosed public places, including restaurants, stores, public and private offices, public transportation, schools, health care facilities, colleges, etc.

Bars and casinos could allow customers to smoke indoors, as long as they didn’t allow anyone under 18 in the area.

That ends Oct. 1.

The restaurant, lounge and casino Barnes and his wife, Nancy, own has many patrons who smoke. Barnes looked at some prebuilt outside smoking shelters available through a local distributor with price tags of $9,000 on up.

He didn’t place an order.

Members of the Design Review board warned the couple to check to find out if the shelter falls under the Act’s definition of an enclosed space, which would mean no smoking will be allowed.

The Design Review board, however, is not the authority in that decision. Neither is the Great Falls Community Development office, or any other municipality’s building permit office for that matter.

“I ended up asking my customers who smoke about it and they said they will go outside and smoke in their cars if the weather is bad,” said Dick Barnes. “I see some of the other places in town are putting up what look like outside smoking areas. I hope we don’t lose customers because we are waiting. But I’d also hate to spend $10,000 to $15,000 and then find out what we’ve built doesn’t comply.”

The administrative rules for Montana’s Clean Indoor Act define an enclosed room as “an area with a wall on all sides reaching from floor to ceiling, exclusive of windows and doors and does not include an area completely or partially open to the outside air such as a roofed shelter.”

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, local boards of health and their designees are responsible for supervising and enforcing the law. The Montana Tobacco Use Prevention Program is responsible for coordinating implementation of the law.

But no one from those offices can provide Barnes or any other bar or casino owner with a definitive answer about whether or not their patrons can smoke in an outdoor structure they provide without violating the Clean Indoor Air Act.

“We are getting questions, but we didn’t write the language of the law,” said Linda Lee, section supervisor of the Tobacco Use Prevention Program. “I’m not an attorney. If people ask about plans for a smoking shack, if it is OK, we basically respond that first; they should have their attorney look at the language of the law. It describes what an enclosed public space is. There’s no one in my office or in the field from the tobacco prevention program that can approve or disapprove any type of smoking shelter.”

Great Falls bar and casino owners face additional questions because a city ordinance prohibits smoking within 20 feet of a door or window of a public place, including bars and restaurants.

“The law and the city ordinance are vague,” said Kate Marone, spokeswoman for the City-County Health Department in Great Falls. “We are encouraging property owners to read both. There is still a lot of work in terms of interpreting the rules and a lot of unknowns.”

Property owners should wait before investing in an outdoor smoking area, said Marone.

“We are getting inquiries right now, but nobody has any answers,” she said. “Until we know more, I think it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Lee said her division recommends against building outside smoking areas.

“Who will clean it?” she said. “The Clean Indoor Air Act is intended to protect employees from secondhand smoke exposure in the workplace.”

If property owners chose to build, Lee said her supervisors think the administrative rules for the law are clear.

“If they follow that language, then they should be OK,” she said.

But there is a caveat, Lee said.

“I remind property owners that some municipality could pass a set- back rule in the future, such as (the one in place now in Great Falls) that says there can not be smoking with in so many feet of a building,” she said.

Construction is underway at Doc’s OK Korral in Lewistown on two open-air structures intended for smokers, one off the entrance to the casino side and the other off the bar’s entrance.

“We want to try to accommodate the customers and we want to follow the law and guidelines,” said Ron Jupka, who owns the Doc’s OK Korral building. “Part of the problem is that it’s hard to get definitive answers.”

Jupka and his business partners decided to take their plans for the small additions, about 70-square-feet with electricity and fans, to the city, which granted a building permit.

The final cost will run upwards of $20,000.

“We were surprised at the cost, they are really nothing elaborate or fancy, they aren’t enclosed,” said Jupka. “They are just a spot for people to go outside to smoke that will keep the rain and snow off of them. Our employees won’t be able to go out there to service them. They can’t clean it either, so we’ll have to deal with that.”

Right now, cleaning the smoking shelters isn’t Jupka’s biggest concern.

“The big unknown is what impact the smoking ban will have on our business,” he said. “A lot of our customers enjoy having a cheap cigarettes while they are playing a game or having a drink. All we can do it try to accommodate them.”


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