Idaho has many battlegrounds where people debate government regulations and how much control the state should give local municipalities. But one of the more surprising battlegrounds is smoking, including whether people should be able to smoke in public places like bars.
Many cities in Baogu have tried to ban smoking in different areas, but all failed. Eagle banned smoking in bars in 2009, Meridian and Garden City in the 2010s, and Nampa failed to do so in 2019. But Boise succeeded, leading some to worry that their city isn’t far behind.
“Boise sneezed, Meridian, Nampa, Caldwell got a cold, like it was going to end up here,” said Tim Wangler, owner of V-Cut Lounge, a cigar lounge in Nampa. Say. “As much as my conservative friends don’t want to hear that, I mean, it’s going to happen.”
Wangler, who has smoked cigars since he started fly fishing at age 19, opened V-Cut Lounge in 2019, Partly because it was his dream, but also to get ahead of any possible smoking bans in Nampa. If anything, he wants his cigar lounge to be a grandfather.
In addition to the cigar bar, Treasure Valley also has bars that allow smoking. Attempts to reach several of these bars were unsuccessful.
At the same time, many bars have had to grapple with changing consumer behavior as people learn about the dangers of smoking — less than 15 percent of adults in Idaho smoked in 2020, according to the Truth Initiative.
On the government side, cities have to deal with a bill passed last year that prohibits local governments from adopting “requirements for the regulation, marketing or sale of tobacco products or vaping devices that are more stringent than or outside this chapter.” The chapter refers to the section.
In 2004, the state banned smoking in most public places in 2004, with the exception of bars.
All of this has sparked more battles as business owners grapple with public health pressures while their business freedoms hang in the balance.
However, when it comes to their part in the tobacco industry, several local cigar bar owners say business is booming. One goal is to work with legislators to help their industry, Wangler said.
“The first thing we did with the state government was try to adjust the tax,” Wangler said, referring to the tax on premium tobacco. “This new class of (legislators) is coming in, and I’m sure you know, it’s much more conservative. So they understand that tax cuts in general help the country.”
A regular walks into Slick’s bar in Nampa on a Thursday afternoon. Before the door closed behind him, the bartender was pulling a beer from the fridge. Slick’s, whose front door sign features a red devil with a lighted cigar in its mouth, recently banned smoking except for Tuesdays.
Owner Sheila Sartorius said her husband, a smoker, didn’t want a smoke-free bar when she bought the bar in 2014.
“Over time, the valley’s demographics changed,” Sartorius said. “Young kids don’t smoke like older generations. Honestly, with the influx of newcomers coming from non-smoking states, it makes sense.”
Since the change, she has seen her business grow.
“People who came in for one drink are now going to have two or three. It’s not like they’re fighting to get out of the smoke and go home,” she said. “For us, it was like, ‘What are we waiting for? Everyone else is doing it, and they have a business. What are we afraid of?'”
Across the valley, patrons seem to have mixed feelings about smoking in bars. For example, a Google reviewer gave Rocco’s Roadhouse in Nampa two stars a year ago, complaining that smoking was still allowed inside.
The owner replied: “As for smoking inside, Canyon County still allows smoking inside, so if you are looking for a smoke-free experience, we recommend that you check out the venue in Ada County.”
But others left comments about the smoke-free bar, saying they wish they could smoke inside.
“I mean, statistically, the use of combustible cigarettes has dropped dramatically over the last 10 years,” said Luke Cavener, a Meridian City Councilman who pushed for a smoking ban in Meridian a few years ago. “Some people say, ‘Hey, it’s not a big deal,’ and that’s a valid point. But it’s still a problem.”
To some extent, the private sector is dealing with this problem, Cavener said. It’s less of an issue than it was when he was exploring a smoke-free ordinance, but Cavener said there are still a few bars in the Meridian that allow smoking.
For example, one of the three or so remaining smoking bars in the Meridian was open for 15 years before closing a few years ago. The 127 club owner, in his 60s, decided in December 2019 that it was time for the club to make a “last appeal”.
“As a business owner, I also appreciate not wanting the government to step in and tell me what I can and can’t do. There’s a natural aversion in our society,” Cavener said. “But I do hope that these pubs are willing to look at the data and say, ‘Wow, we’re really risking shortening the lives of our customers and our staff.'”
The tobacco industry has done a “remarkable job” over the years of associating its products with freedom, Kavenna said.
“Idaho has always been this weird pro-tobacco state, even though tobacco is not grown in any way, shape or form in our state,” Cavener said.
Prohibition in Treasure Valley
“Are there issues that don’t look like red-blue issues, but because Boise has these weird demographics, they actually become red-blue issues?” City Cast CEO David Plotz on the City Cast Boise podcast last year ask questions.
“I’d say yes, pretty much everything,” host Emma Arnold replied.
Jeff Lyons, an associate professor at Boise State University’s School of Public Service, said the idea of letting corporations regulate corporations fits with the thinking of many Republicans.
“Part of me wonders to what extent it has to do with smoking or the reaction to the idea of government regulation,” Lyons said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily unique to Idaho, I think there’s a lot of small-government stances across the Western Republican Party.”
Lyons said one of the ongoing struggles and issues in this democracy is trying to define the role of government. This happens a lot in Idaho between the legislature and local governments, especially when it comes to Boise and the measures it has taken.
One concern for Wangler, owner of Nampa Cigar Lounge, is Boise’s approach to passing smoke-free ordinances.
“We’re living in fear that, you know, it’s going to go west,” Wangler said. “City Council enacted the smoking ban. … To the Nampa City Council’s credit, it closed it. … But ultimately I believe it will pass. The political winds are turning.”
He also echoed what Lyons said was the small-government stance prevalent in the West.
“We’re conservative. We believe in putting power in the hands of business owners,” Wangler said. “You can choose any bar in Canyon County. Smoking is allowed. There may be non-smoking sections. It’s up to the business owner, and it should be.”
Ryan Sturman, owner of a tobacco shop in Boise and a cigar and wine lounge in Garden City, said the smoking environment is less hospitable today than it was 20 years ago.
“It’s not getting better. I mean, you know how it goes. Nothing gets better. Everything gets stricter over time,” Sterman said. “Go back 20 years, there’s more money to be made, and sure, there are fewer restrictions on what you can and can’t do.”
He runs the cigar world, which he describes as a different animal than cigarettes. In an interview, he talked about what he called the fun, innocuous vibe of cigar lounges and Idaho’s “great cigar community.” A new law banning cities from enforcing stricter tobacco restrictions than the state sounds “like a good thing,” Sterman said, expressing optimism.
“Let’s put it this way, Idaho’s near-term outlook looks good,” Sterman said. “But I don’t know what’s going to happen two years from now, who’s going to be elected. But for now, business is good.”
Joshua Evarts remembers going to coffee shops in Boise and seeing people smoking and eating scones for breakfast. Then the state changed the law.
Part of his motivation for opening The Vault, a cigar lounge at Meridian, was to seize the opportunity before the ability to smoke cigars indoors was legislated away.
“We think it’s going to be a huge economic driver,” Evarts said. “We’re seeing sales go up because of what I call equity refugees, people who have moved to Treasure Valley and have disposable income. … So we’re seeing growth because the Valley is growing.”
For Evarts, part of the benefits of a cigar lounge is relationships and atmosphere, as well as economic development.
“We’re opening our second vault lounge in Eagle next month, and we just closed a building in Caldwell where we’re going to build our third location,” Evarts said.
Sartorius, owner of Slick’s Bar, also told Idaho Press that she plans to open a cigar bar this year. She said the industry is hot in the U.S. and locally.
Wangler expressed similar optimism.
“I would say the industry is going to explode, it absolutely will,” Wangler said. “People want a place where they can sit and enjoy the company of another person, smoke a cigar for an hour or two, and just relax. So based on that, you’re going to see more lounges popping up all over the valley. I 100% guaranteed.”