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Seeking solace on the rez
Mention of Montana's imminent smoking ban evokes little more than a shrug inside the Gray Wolf Peak Casino north of Evaro. One woman with a couple packs of Marlboros stacked on a wad of one-dollar bills is barely willing to turn away from her ringing, dinging machine. The first employee I talk to isn't aware of the ban at all. Nor should he be, considering that the ban doesn't even apply here on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
But it's not that simple, it turns out. How, exactly, the ban is applied on reservations in Montana is as cloudy as Gray Wolf Peak's smoky lounge. Because the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) and their members own only about 62 percent of the reservation's 1.3 million acres, the question of where the ban holds sway has even tribal leaders and state attorneys digging into the fine print. More than that, though, the question touches on sensitive and complex issues of tribal sovereignty, which seem to have made the state hesitant to test the limits of the law's influence.
"A lot of people are unsure how this works, and the flow of information is hard to trace," says CSKT Communications Director Robert McDonald.
This much is clear: The smoking ban will not apply to tribally owned bars, restaurants and casinos. On the Flathead Indian Reservation, that includes the Gray Wolf Peak Casino and Best Western KwaTaqNuk Resort in Polson. (The tribe has passed its own smoking ban inside some other public spaces.) The ban will apply to non-tribal members on the reservation who own and operate such establishments.
Less clear is how the law applies to establishments owned by tribal members, like the Silver Dollar in St. Ignatius. For it and others, the ban will not be "pursued," according to state attorneys and officials with the Department of Public Health & Humman Services (DPHHS), an approach that avoids the legal can of worms any pursuit would surely crack open. Calls to the Silver Dollar were not returned.
Of course, the tribes can implement their own smoking ban that would mirror the state law, something the tribal council is batting around.
"I know with authority that there has been some discussion internally in our health department about this statewide ban, and the fact that the tribes have the option to adopt their own ban if they so chose," says McDonald. "But that has not been brought forward to council at this point. It's likely that may happen, depending on the flow of other issues and whatnot. It's definitely been on their minds, especially with regard to the anti-smoking efforts of the health department. But ultimately it's the council's decision."
From a health perspective, the tribes would seem to have very good reason to implement a ban. According to the 2008 Montana Adult Tobacco Use Survey, the prevalence of smoking among American Indians was roughly four times that of white Americans—55 percent versus 14 percent, respectively. Furthermore, DPHHS's most recent survey of tobacco use and attitudes among American Indians in Montana found that more than two thirds believed smoking should not be allowed in restaurants and other indoor public places.
But health implications are balanced by cultural ones, which complicate anti-tobacco efforts on reservations, not to mention the debate over an outright ban.
"Tobacco prevention specialists on reservations...certainly understand the toxic nature of second-hand smoke, but they're up against something very, very powerful, and that is the historical, traditional and sacred use of tobacco," says Linda Lee, supervisor of the Montana Tobacco Use Prevention Program. "They have to always be very, very sensitive with any of their teachings or any of their educational pieces when they talk about it, because what has happened is that tobacco, from a sacred perspective, has become enmeshed with commercial tobacco. And so they have a very difficult job to try to start separating that out."
For now, issues of sovereignty and health aside, it would appear Montana's smoking ban could be a boon for the handful of bars and casinos on the Flathead Indian Reservation where patrons can still light up after Oct. 1. But, when asked if he expects a boost in business, McDonald says he wouldn't bet on it.
"It's still a long ways to get here," he says. "There are people who will drive 15 minutes from Missoula to take a shot at winning $500,000 on a 90 cent bet in Evaro, and there are people willing to take a weekend trip and drive 90 minutes to Polson from Missoula to sleep by the lake and gamble on the Class 2 machines that pay out progressive. But it's still a ways."
Whatever the implications of the state smoking ban for the reservation, they're certainly not on the minds of those hunkered down at the Gray Wolf Peak Casino, where even an older woman who says she has severe allergies endures the thick smoke for a shot at quick cash.
"I should stay away from here," she says as she slips a crisp twenty into the machine. "It would be nice if it was smoke-free."
Last man standing
If the statewide smoking ban is the Alamo, then Darrell Keck, owner of the Dixie Inn in Shelby, would be considered Davy Crockett. Four years after the 2005 Legislature worked with the Montana Taverns Association (MTA) to negotiate the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act—and include a four-year grace period for bars and casinos to comply—Keck attempted to reverse the law.
The 25-year owner of the roadside lounge, casino and supper club—and former president of the MTA—asked his state senator to introduce a bill that would continue to exempt drinking establishments. The MTA went berserk and lambasted Keck in public meetings. Anti-smoking groups screamed foul. Legislators said they'd firmly stand their ground. The bill, ultimately, was never introduced.
Come Oct. 1, Keck says the Dixie Inn will go smoke free. But he's not happy about it. We caught Keck in Missoula, where he was attending the MTA's annual convention. He sat on the porch of his non-smoking hotel room, taking puffs of a Marlboro Red.
Indy: Why are you against the ban?
Keck: I have a large base of smokers—some would say as much as 70 percent—with a lot of truckers that stop in and some locals. It fits my business. There is room for both types of establishments in Montana. It's not a health issue. It's a property rights issue. They're telling us how to run our business. The study that the doctors did in Helena [to help support the statewide ban in 2005] is totally bogus and full of half-truths. I had hoped to introduce the bill and have some of that come out through testimony, but it just didn't happen.
Indy: You attempted something of a last stand during the last legislative session. Did you think you'd win?
Keck: I thought we could win. Once some of the issues were brought up, I thought we'd change opinions in the Legislature. But my sponsor decided not to introduce it, and we didn't get the chance.
We didn't get much publicity because we're just little, independent business people. We don't have the money. The proponents of this bill were all funded by a large New York foundation [the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation] and they didn't have to raise any money. The out-of-state money came in and the little independent businesses couldn't compete in an open boxing match, so to speak. And, frankly, it's not a last stand. Not yet...We could always sue 'em, if we ever got the money. But right now the out-of-state do-gooders just have us over a barrel.
Indy: What do you mean when you say this is a property rights issue?
Keck: Back in the English rule, if a king wanted a piece of your land to go hunting on, he just confiscated it. That's essentially what they're doing. I own my building. I own my land. I know my business. I don't expect everybody to offer smoking and I don't care if the people who don't like it don't come into my place. That's fine. They have a choice and all I want is the same choice.
Indy: You made the MTA pretty mad when you fought the existing agreement this year. How do things stand now?
Keck: We're friends, win, lose or draw. Some weren't happy, that's true. That's why they make different colors of paint. People disagree. You never paint everything white.
Indy: So, will the Dixie Inn comply with the ban come Oct. 1?
Keck: I spent $18,000 three years ago to make my dining room smoke-free and complied totally with the exemption on my bar area. We'll comply again.
Indy: Have you made any changes to accommodate the smokers?
Keck: We don't even know what the rules are yet. I have a patio, but I haven't used it in 25 years and I don't intend to activate it.
Indy: Do you think it'll hurt business?
Keck: It's going to hurt my business drastically, I think. I don't know how long it will last. Some places bounce back, some don't. Atlantic City casinos went smoke free [in 2007] and, after a year, it hurt their business so badly that they went back and petitioned to allow smoking. They got it. I think it will hurt gaming revenues for the state, that's for sure. But how long will it last? That I don't know. That'd just be a prediction.
Indy: I've never been to the Dixie Inn. What's the drink of choice there?
Keck: The drink of choice? Just beer.