Idaho has many battlegrounds where people argue over government regulations and how much control the state should give to local municipalities. But one of the surprising battlegrounds is tobacco smoking, including whether people should be able to smoke in public places like bars.
Multiple cities in the Treasure Valley have tried, but failed, to ban smoking in various areas. Eagle failed to ban smoking in bars in 2009, Meridian and Garden City in 2010, and Nampa failed to pass a smoking ban in 2019. But Boise did, leaving some worried their city isn’t far behind.
“Boise sneezes and Meridian, Nampa, Caldwell, everybody gets a cold, it’s like it’s going to get here one day,” said Tim Wangler, owner of V-Cut Lounge, a cigar lounge in Nampa. “As much as my conservative friends don’t want to hear it, I mean, it’s going to happen.”
Wangler, who has been smoking cigars since he started fly fishing at age 19, opened the V-Cut lounge in 2019., partly because it was his dream, but also to get ahead of any smoking bans that might take hold in Nampa. If there is, he wants his cigar lounge to be the grandfather in it.
Besides cigar lounges, there are still bars in Treasure Valley that allow smoking. Attempts to reach several of those bars were unsuccessful.
At the same time, many bars must contend with changing consumer behavior as people learn about the dangers of smoking — fewer than 15% of Idaho adults smoked cigarettes in 2020, according to the Truth Initiative.
On the government side, cities must contend with a bill passed last year that prohibits local governments from adopting “requirements for the regulation, marketing or sale of tobacco products or electronic smoking devices that are more restrictive than or in addition to this chapter. ” Chapter refers to a section of law.
In 2004, the state banned smoking in most public places in 2004, but granted an exception for bars.
All this leads to new battles, as business owners consider the pressures on public health while their business freedoms hang in the balance.
However, when it comes to their part of the tobacco industry, several local cigar lounge owners say business is booming. And Wangler said one goal is to work with the legislature to help their industry.
“The first thing we’re going to do with the state is we’re going to try to adjust the taxation,” Wangler said, referring to the taxation of premium tobacco. “This new class (of lawmakers) coming in, I’m sure you know, is much more conservative. And so they understand that just cutting taxes generally helps the state.”
A regular walked into Slick’s Bar in Nampa on Thursday afternoon. Before the door even closed behind him, the bartender pulled a beer out of the cooler. Slick’s, whose front sign depicts a red devil holding a lit cigar between his teeth, recently went smoke-free, except for Tobacco Tuesdays.
Owner Sheila Sartorius said when she bought the bar in 2014, her husband was a smoker and didn’t want a non-smoking bar.
“Over time, the demographics in the valley have changed,” Sartorius said. “Younger children do not smoke as much as the older generation. And to be honest, with the influx of new people coming here, they’re coming from smoke-free states, and it made sense.”
After the change, she recorded an increase in business.
“People who would come and have just one drink now stay for two or three. It’s not like they’re struggling to get out of the smoke and get home,” she said. “For us it’s like ‘what are we waiting for? Everyone else is doing it and they have work too. What are we afraid of?’”
On the other side of the valley, visitors’ opinions about smoking in bars are different. For example, a Google reviewer gave Rocco’s Roadhouse in Nampa a two-star review a year ago, complaining that smoking was still allowed inside.
Owner’s Response: “Regarding indoor smoking, Canyon County still allows indoor smoking, so if you’re looking for a smoke-free experience, we suggest visiting the Ada County facilities.”
But other people have left reviews of non-smoking bars and said they wish they could smoke inside.
“I mean, statistically speaking, the use of combustible cigarettes has gone down dramatically in the last 10 years,” said Meridian City Councilman Luke Cavener, who pushed for a smoking ban in Meridian several years ago. “Some people say, ‘hey, this is a minor problem,’ and that’s fair to say. But it’s still a problem.”
To some extent, the private sector is dealing with that problem, Cavener said. It’s less of a problem than when he was researching his no-smoking ordinance, but Cavener said there are still a few bars in Meridian that allow smoking.
For example, one of the roughly three remaining smoking bars in Meridian operated for 15 years before closing a few years ago. The 60-year-old owners of Club 127 decided in December 2019 that it was time for the “last call of the club forever”.
“I can also appreciate being a business owner, not wanting the government to come in and tell me what I can and can’t do. There is a natural aversion to it in our society,” Cavener said. “But I wish those bars would be willing to look at the data and say, ‘wow, we’re really at risk of shortening the lifespan of not only our customers but our employees as well.'”
The tobacco industry has done a “really good job” over the years of associating its products with freedom, Cavener said.
“Idaho has always been a strange, pro-tobacco state, despite the fact that our state does not grow tobacco in any way,” Cavener said.
Bans in Treasure Valley
“Are there issues that don’t look like red-and-blue issues, but because Boise has these weird demographics, they actually become red-and-blue issues?” City Cast CEO David Plotz asked on the City Cast Boise podcast last year.
“I’d say yes to almost everything,” host Emma Arnold replied.
The prospect of allowing businesses to regulate lines of business is in line with the thinking of many Republicans, said Jeff Lyons, an associate professor at Boise State University’s School of Public Service.
“Part of me wonders how much of that is due to smoking or a reaction to the idea of government regulation,” Lyons said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily unique to Idaho, I think across the West the Republican Party in general has a lot of small government views.”
One of the consistent struggles and questions in this democracy is trying to define the role of government, Lyons said. In Idaho, this has often happened between the legislature and local governments, especially when it comes to Boise and the measures it is taking.
For Wangler, owner of the Nampa Cigar Lounge, the concern is the measure Boise has been working toward in passing the no-smoking ordinance.
“We live in fear of, you know, it’s going to spread west,” Wangler said. “There was a smoking ban that came before the city council. … The Nampa City Council, to their credit, closed it down. … But in the end I believe it will pass. The political winds are changing.”
He also echoed the small-government attitude that Lyons says is common in the West.
“We are more conservative. We believe in devolving power to the business owner,” Wangler said. “You can pick any bar in Canyon County. Smoking may be available. Smoking may be prohibited. That’s up to the business owner, as it should be.”
Ryan Sturman, owner of a tobacco shop in Boise and a cigar and wine lounge in Garden City, said there is a more hostile environment for smoking today compared to 20 years ago.
“It’s not getting better. I mean, you know how it is. Nothing gets better. It’s getting more restrictive over time,” said Sturman. “Rewind 20 years, there was more money to be made and less restrictions on where you could and when you couldn’t, for sure.”
He deals with the world of cigars, which he described as a separate animal from cigarettes. In the interview, he talked about what he called the fun, non-offensive atmosphere of cigar lounges as well as the “great cigar community” in Idaho. Sturman said the new law barring cities from imposing stricter state tobacco restrictions sounds “like a great thing” and expressed optimism.
“Let’s put it this way, the immediate future in Idaho looks great,” Sturman said. “But I have no idea what is in store in two years and who will be elected. But right now business is going well.”
Joshua Evarts remembers going to coffee shops in Boise and seeing guys smoking cigarettes, eating cookies and eating breakfast. Then the country changed its laws.
Part of his motivation in opening The Vault, a cigar lounge in Meridian, was to take advantage of the opportunity before indoor cigar smoking is outlawed.
“We thought it would be a big economic driver,” Evarts said. “We’re seeing an uptick in sales, because of what I would call capital refugees, people who have moved to the Treasure Valley who have disposable income. … So we’ve seen growth because of the growth of the valley.”
For Evarts, part of the benefit of cigar lounges is the relationships and atmosphere, as well as economic development.
“We’re opening a second vault showroom in Eagle next month, and we just closed on a building in Caldwell, where we’re going to build our third location,” Evarts said.
Sartorius, owner of Slick’s Bar, also told the Idaho Press that she plans to open a cigar bar this year. She said the industry is on fire, across the US and locally.
Wangler expressed similar optimism.
“I would say this industry is going to explode, it’s absolutely up in the air,” Wangler said. “People want a place where they can sit, enjoy the company of another person, have a nice cigar for an hour or two and just relax. And so based on that, you’re going to see more salons popping up all over the valley. I guarantee it 100%.”