"Palpably uncomfortable" is how Raurie Birch describes the smoke-filled air during her recent visits to the Children's Museum Missoula, where she regularly takes her 22-month-old daughter. The culprit is a private cigar smokers' club, Fool's End, that opened on the floor beneath the museum last October. Since then, Birch says, stogie fumes have soiled an important resource for local families.
"To go in there and have that smell and feel like you're going to Charlie B's is frankly outrageous," she says. [For the record, smoking hasn't been allowed inside Charlie B's for years.]
Heeding some two dozen complaints like Birch's, the City-County Board of Health is trying to step in. In a Feb. 22 court filing, the health board asked a judge to snuff out the cigar club in a case that will test whether members-only smokers lounges run afoul of Montana's 2009 ban against smoking indoors in public places.
Information about Fool's End, the only business of its kind in the state, is hard to come by. (A man who identified himself as an owner, but refused to provide his name, declined to speak with the Indy). An attorney for the club has described it in letters to public officials as a haven for cigar aficionados to smoke together. Members pay a $900 "initiation fee" and undergo an interview. They use personal codes to access the club, which consists of a room decorated with area rugs, end tables and leather and wooden chairs. The club itself has no employees, though the owners have a license to sell tobacco products.
These details may be crucial in determining whether Fool's End qualifies as an "enclosed public space" or a "place of work" under the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act. City-county health officials take the stance that even though Fool's End is members only, the facility is still part of an office building that shares a ventilation system.
"It's almost impossible to keep smoke from moving from one part of a building into another," says Environmental Health Director Shannon Therriault.
One of Fool's End's partners, Don Gaumer, said in a letter to the health board that the club conducted months of due diligence before opening and has taken steps to be "considerate" of adjacent tenants. At the time of the club's opening, one of those tenants was Gaumer's wife, Claire Olivier, who was then the executive director of the Children's Museum. Olivier resigned from the Museum in November, a few weeks after the health department received its first complaints from a museum patron. Museum board chair Isaac Kantor says he doesn't believe Olivier's departure was related to the cigar smoke issue.
Fumes in the museum haven't been as harsh since Fool's End upgraded its ventilation system, among other steps, according to Birch. Gaumer pointed out that the club held a tasting event in December where members and their guests lit more than 150 cigars in less than two hours, and no other tenants complained.
Regardless, health officials say, Fool's End needs to go. In addition to seeking a judgment regarding the Indoor Air Act, the health board also wants a judge to declare the club a public nuisance.
"The fact that it's a children's museum makes it more important, because children are more affected by secondhand smoke," Therriault says.