RONAN – Enforcement of Montana’s Clean Air Act appears to be a little hazy on Indian reservations.
Tribally owned casinos are exempt from the indoor-smoking ban, while some enrolled tribal members who own reservation bars and casinos aren’t enforcing the ban.
In the meantime, Rick and Vicki Wheeler, who are not members of the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes, recently received their first letter of complaint from the Lake County Health Department for not enforcing the smoking ban at their Ronan business, The Club, which is within the Flathead Indian Reservation.
“Ninety percent of my customers smoke,” said Rick Weaver, who has owned The Club for 20 years. “This bar is my retirement — do they want to take that away from me, too? It’s racial discrimination.”
Diana Schwab, the tobacco prevention coordinator in Lake County, agrees the law raises different issues on the state’s reservations.
“I understand what the owner is saying — he’s afraid he’ll lose his business to a smoking bar,” Schwab said. “All I can say is he is responsible for complying with state law.”
The tribally owned Grey Wolf Peak Casino north of Evaro and the Kwa Taq Nuk Resort in Polson offer both smoking and nonsmoking casino areas.
Lori Peterson, a tribal member who owns the Pheasant Lounge in Ronan, said she initially posted her business as smoke-free and saw a decline in customers. She later learned it was up to her whether she chose to enforce the ban, which took effect Oct. 1. She started allowing smoking again and customers returned.
“The way I understand it, the state and health department won’t pursue it if we allow it, because they have nowhere to take it,” she said.
Peterson isn’t the only tribal member on the reservation who owns a bar that allows smoking, and Wheeler isn’t the only non-tribal member who isn’t enforcing the smoking ban. He’s just not afraid to admit it.
Wheeler, 65, said he and his wife both smoke, as do two of their three bartenders. The third uses smokeless tobacco. He says his bar has an exhaust system to help clear the smoke.
“If people want to smoke, they should have that right,” Wheeler said. “It’s their choice. We have rights, too. There are plenty of places for nonsmokers to go.”
Schwab countered: “The need to breathe clean air supersedes the need to smoke.”
Businesses get two warning letters before they face possible fines of $100, $200 and $500 for third, fourth, fifth and subsequent complaints.
Schwab talked with Vicki Wheeler, who told her that “they don’t plan on complying.”
Whether the issue is pushed any further will depend on whether another complaint is filed.
Rick Wheeler said he’d prefer that people who don’t want to be around cigarette smoke to patronize a bar that is enforcing the smoking ban.
Another businessman, Ron Smart, who has owned the Second Chance for nearly 30 years, says the recession has hurt local bars more than the smoking ban. Peterson agrees.
“It isn’t gaming, it isn’t smoking, it’s the recession,” said Peterson, owner of the Pheasant Lounge. “We lost Plum Creek, which was a big employer here. People don’t have the money for groceries, gas, lights and heat.”
Still, she says she’s hearing from business owners who are losing money when they ask smoking patrons to step outside.
“It never should have been passed,” she said. “The state’s not paying our bills, what gives them the right to tell people how to run their businesses. I think if people aren’t allowed to smoke, the state shouldn’t be allowed to sell cigarettes.”
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