Dec 21, 2011 8:30 PM by Erin Schermele (Great Falls)
When the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act went into effect, several bar and casino owners in Great Falls saw a 25% drop in business.
Now, Great Falls company M.C. Inc. believes that it's found a solution that allows comfortable smoking rooms which comply with state law - but public health officials don't see it that way.
After two years of cutting expenses and barely breaking even, the owners of M.C. Inc. have found a way to cater to their smoking clientele and get the business back on track.
K.C. Palagi noted, "Anything is going to help right now, to make them more comfortable and keep them there longer, you know, that's the name of the game."
The game is gambling and a preferred accompaniment is smoking.
Palagi and his business partners thought the mixture of the two was terminated with the implementation of the MT Clean Indoor Air Act in 2009, but after spending almost a year reviewing gaming and smoking laws, they found a solution in the creation of a smoking patio.
Gregg Smith, the treasurer of M.C. Inc., said, "We didn't look at this from a standpoint of reading the rules and reading the statutes and say, 'Let's find a loophole,' we said, 'What can we do legally?'"
The law defines an enclosed room as an area with a wall on all sides reaching from floor to ceiling. But the catch is that the law does not apply to areas completely or partially open to the outside air.
So in two of their five locations, M.C. Inc built a floor to ceiling room with several open air spaces; an exhaust system and fans turn over air in the room every two minutes.
What caught the attention of health officials was when six gambling machines were placed inside the patios.
Alicia Thompson of the Cascade City-County Health Office said, "You can't have it both ways. If the Department of Justice laws and rules say gambling must be in an enclosed room, and the Clean Indoor Air Act says smoking is only allowed in an unenclosed room...you can't have smoking and gambling in the same place."
The issue is a difference in definitions of an enclosed room.
According to Smith, the Department of Justice approved their patios for gaming, but the City-County Health Department is moving forward with their enforcement protocol to end smoking in the patios.
However, health department officials say they are willing to explore a possible compromise.
Thompson said, "Public health does not condone tobacco use - period. We don't condone it. It is a major cause of a lot of illness...but yet, we are realistic and we know we have to address it."
Palagi thinks the smoking patios are a positive addition for smokers and non-smokers in Great Falls, pointing out, "You go to a lot of places in town and you still walk through the haze of smokers outside...small smoking patios might be a thing that is healthy for the community and not such a detriment to the community."