Casper Smoking Ban Pits Health Vs. Property Rights

Oct 16, 2015

Bartender Jeremy Toribio works at the Moonlight Lounge.
Credit Bob Beck

To put it mildly, eliminating smoking from bars has been in tough in Casper. Since 2000 the Casper City Council has twice approved smoking bans, and they were both overturned. Now the issue is up for another vote next month. The public has a chance to decide whether it agrees with a city council effort to allow smoking in bars and some other places. It’s being framed as a battle of business rights versus health.

Few people have worked on tobacco prevention issues longer than Jerre Jones. She pushed for the Great American Smokeout in the 1970’s and continues to work on a variety of cancer prevention issues. She was excited in 2000 when she heard about City Council efforts to make all public places in Casper smoke-free.

“Some kids from the high school went to the council and said things should be smoke-free.”

The council agreed with the students, but a public vote overturned the ordinance. 

Jones was disappointed, but she always thought Casper residents would come around. 

The issue came back in 2012 when the city council again passed a comprehensive smoking ban. But several council members who supported the ban, including Kimberly Holloway, did not serve another term. The new council carved out a number of exceptions to the ban, including allowing smoking in bars. 

“In my opinion gutted the ordinance, gutted the spirit of the ordinance,” said Holloway.

She and others fought back and now the issue will once again be voted on by the public. Holloway said a smoking ban should not have exceptions. 

This is not about infringing on private property rights, this is not negating anybody's rights as a business owner. As a business owner, you do not have the right to knowingly poison people.

“This is not about infringing on private property rights, this is not negating anybody’s rights as a business owner. As a business owner, you do not have the right to knowingly poison people.”

Moonlight Liquors owner Al Curtis could not disagree more saying that it is about his rights as a business owner. His establishment is one of just five where smoking would be allowed. It’s a huge facility with room for dancing and pool. His concern is that if smoking is banned in Casper his customers will go elsewhere.  Curtis said that happened during the last smoking ban hat in 2012.

“My customers here the last time this thing went through, they have to drive five minutes over to Evansville and they can smoke in any bar they want.”

Or they can go to Bar Nunn or Mills. Curtis said the impact was huge. 

“I lost about 20 percent of my business which is a pretty good sum of money. My employees lost money and they all have house payments, car payments, we also have a 401K plan, we have health insurance, and if I lose this smoking issue we are going to have to lose some of these benefits.”

It’s not just the owners of businesses where smoking is allowed that are upset about the ban. Pat Sweeney owns two smoke-free bars, but he also objects to the ban. He said business owners should be allowed to do what they like without government interference. 

“I don’t think this is the answer to do social engineering on the backs of small business and that’s what the American Cancer society and the folks that are pushing this agenda are after.”

Sweeny owns the Wonderbar in Casper. While he opposes the smoking ban the majority of his patrons last Monday night were for the ban. Kathy Eason said that allowing smoking in bars infringes on her rights. 

“If they’re gonna do a bad habit of smoking, let them do it at home or outside. But because of them there’s five places I can’t go to if I would choose to. And I don’t think it’s fair that I gotta stay away from places I might want to go to.”

Others expressed concern for the employees that work in smoke-filled bars.

One patron, David Dugan, had the minority opinion. He’s worked in bars throughout Casper and is convinced that smokers will go places where they don’t have to go outside. 

“Especially with winter coming up, smokers are going to choose bars where you can smoke in.”

In other words, he expects smokers to go to bars outside the city limits which Dugan thinks will hurt Casper businesses. He’ll be voting to allow smoking in bars.

Research has shown that it’s hard to say what the economic impacts will be in a city. Tiffany Comer Cook is a Senior Research Scientist with the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center. Research in Wyoming and elsewhere has shown that removing smoking from bars has led to no net economic impact. 

“That’s not to say individual bars or restaurants have not been impacted, but on the whole there’s been no economic impact.”

While people don’t like smoking bans at first, that changes. She has a couple of examples. 

“We surveyed Laramie residents back when the ordinance passed in 2005 and we surveyed them in February prior to the ordinance passing and then again a year later and we found that support for smoke-free bars and residents increased by 14 percent for Laramie residents.”

Cook says they got virtually the same results when Cheyenne passed its ordinance. Whether the reaction in Casper will be the same remains to be seen.

The vote will be November third. If you want to ban smoking in bars, you want to vote no. If you want to uphold the City Council’s exceptions to the law, you’ll vote yes.