Idaho has plenty of battlegrounds where people argue about government regulations and how much control the state should give local municipalities. But one of the more surprising battlegrounds is smoking tobacco, including whether or not people should be able to smoke inside public places like bars.
Multiple cities in the Treasure Valley have tried, and failed, to ban smoking in different areas. Eagle failed to ban smoking in bars in 2009, Meridian and Garden City in the 2010s, and Nampa failed in its smoking ban in 2019. But Boise succeeded, which has left some concerned their city isn’t far behind.
“Boise sneezes and Meridian, Nampa, Caldwell, all catch a cold, like it’ll come here eventually,” said Tim Wangler, owner of V-Cut Lounge, a cigar lounge in Nampa. “As much as my conservative friends don’t want to hear that, I mean, it’s going to happen.”
Wangler, who’s been smoking cigars since he started fly-fishing at age 19, opened V-Cut lounge in 2019, in part because it was a dream of his, but also to get ahead of any smoking bans that may take hold in Nampa. If there is one, he wants his cigar lounge to be grandfathered in.
Beyond cigar lounges, there are still bars in the Treasure Valley that allow cigarette smoking. Attempts to reach several of those bars were unsuccessful.
At the same time, many of the bars have to contend with changing consumer behavior, as people have learned about the dangers of smoking—less than 15% of Idaho adults smoked cigarettes in 2020, according to the truth initiative.
On the government side, cities have to deal 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.” The chapter refers to the section of law.
In 2004, the state banned smoking in most public places in 2004 but granted an exception for bars.
All this sets up more battles down the line, as business owners consider public health pressures while their business freedoms hang in the balance.
However, when it comes to their part of the tobacco industry, several local cigar lounge owners said business is booming. And Wangler said one goal is to work with the Legislature to help their industry.
“The first thing we’re doing with the state is we’re going to make an attempt to adjust the taxation,” Wangler said, referring to taxing premium tobacco. “This new class (of legislators) coming in, I’m sure you know, it’s much more conservative. And so they understand that, just reducing taxes in general helps the state.”
A regular walked into Slick’s Bar in Nampa on Thursday afternoon. Before the door had even closed behind him, the bartender pulled his beer from the fridge. Slick’s, whose sign out front displays a red devil gripping a lit cigar between his teeth, recently went smoke-free, except for tobacco Tuesdays.
Owner Sheila Sartorius said when she acquired the bar in 2014, her husband was a smoker and he didn’t want a non-smoking bar.
“Over time, the demographics in the valley have changed,” Sartorius said. “The younger kids don’t smoke as much as the older generation did. And to be honest, with the influx of new people coming in here, they’re coming from non-smoking states, and it just made sense.”
Since the change, she’s seen an increase in business.
“People who would come in and just have one drink now stay for two or three. It’s not like they’re fighting to get out of the smoke and to get home,” she said. “For us, it’s like, ‘what are we waiting for? Everybody else is doing it and they also have business. What are we afraid of?’”
Across the valley, how patrons feel about smoking in bars appears to be mixed. For example, a Google reviewer gave a two-star review a year ago for Rocco’s Roadhouse in Nampa, complaining that smoking was still allowed inside.
The owner’s response: “As for smoking inside, Canyon County still allows smoking inside, so if you are looking for a smoke free experience, we suggest you visit the establishments in Ada County.”
But other people have left reviews for smoke-free bars saying that they wish they could smoke inside.
“I mean, statistically, the use of combustible cigarettes have decreased dramatically over the past 10 years,” said Meridian City Councilmember Luke Cavener, who pursued a smoking ban in Meridian several years ago. “There’s some people that say, ‘hey, this is less of an issue,’ and that’s a fair point to make. But it still is an issue.”
To a degree, the private sector is dealing with the issue, Cavener said. It’s less of an issue than when he was exploring his smoke-free ordinance, but Cavener said there are still a few bars in Meridian that allow smoking.
For example, one of around three remaining smoking bars in Meridian was in business for 15 years before closing a few years ago. The 60-something-year-old 127 Club owners decided in December 2019 it was time for the club’s “last call for good.”
“I can also appreciate as a business owner, not wanting the government to come in and tell me what I can and can’t do. There’s a natural aversion to that in our society,” Cavener said. “But I do wish that those bars would be willing to look at the data and say, ‘wow, we really are running the risk of shortening the lifespan of not only our customers but of our employees as well.’”
The tobacco industry has done a “really good job” over the years of tying its products to freedom, Cavener said.
“Idaho has always kind of been this weird, pro-tobacco state, despite not growing tobacco in any way, shape or form in our state,” Cavener said.
Bans in the Treasure Valley
“Are there issues that don’t seem like they would be red-blue issues, but because Boise has these weird demographics, they actually become red-blue issues?” City Cast CEO David Plotz asked on a City Cast Boise podcast last year.
“I’d say yes, to pretty much about everything,” host Emma Arnold replied.
The perspective of letting business regulate business lines up with the thinking of many Republicans, said Jeff Lyons, associate professor in the Boise State University School of Public Service.
“Part of me wonders the extent to which it’s about smoking or a reaction to an idea about government regulation,” Lyons said. “I think that it’s not necessarily unique to Idaho, I think across the west in general the Republican Party has a lot of small-government stances.”
One of the consistent struggles and questions in this democracy has been trying to define the role of government, Lyons said. In Idaho, that has often played out between the Legislature and local governments, particularly when it comes to Boise and the measures it takes.
For Wangler, the Nampa cigar lounge owner, a concern is the measure Boise worked on in passing a smoke-free 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, shut it down. … But eventually I believe it’s going to pass. Political winds are shifting.”
He also echoed the small-government stance Lyons said is common across the West.
“We are more conservative. We believe in pushing power down to the business owner,” Wangler said. “You could pick any bar in Canyon County. There could be smoking available. There could be non-smoking. That is up to the business owner, as it should be.”
Ryan Sturman, the owner of a tobacco shop in Boise and a cigar and wine lounge in Garden City, said nowadays there’s more of an unfriendly environment for smoking compared to what things were like 20 years ago.
“It’s not getting better. I mean, you know how it is. Nothing gets better. Everything’s more restrictive over time,” Sturman said. “Rewind 20 years, there was more money to be made and less restrictions on where you can and when you can’t do, for sure.”
He deals in the world of cigars, which he described as a separate animal from cigarettes. In an interview, he talked about what he called the fun, inoffensive atmosphere of a cigar lounge as well as the “great cigar community” in Idaho. Sturman said the new law prohibiting cities from enacting harsher tobacco restrictions than the state 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’s coming down the pipeline in two years, and who’s going to get elected. But as of right now, business is good.”
Joshua Evarts remembers going to cafes in Boise and seeing guys smoking a cigarette, having scones and eating breakfast. Then the state changed its laws.
Part of his motivation in opening The Vault, a cigar lounge in Meridian, was to jump on the opportunity before the ability to smoke cigars indoors was legislated away.
“We thought it would be a great economic driver,” Evarts said. “We’re seeing an uptick in sales, because of what I would call equity refugees, people that have moved to the Treasure Valley that have disposable income. … So we’ve seen growth because of the valley growing.”
For Evarts, part of the benefit of a cigar lounge is the relationships and atmosphere as well as economic development.
“We’re opening a second vault lounge next month in Eagle, and we just closed on a building in Caldwell, where we’re going to build our third location,” Evarts said.
Sartorius, the Slick’s Bar owner, also told the Idaho Press she is planning to open a cigar bar this year. She said the industry is on fire, across the U.S. and locally.
Wangler echoed similar optimism.
“I would say this industry is going to explode, it is absolutely blowing up,” Wangler said. “People want a place where they can sit, enjoy the company of another person, have a fine cigar for an hour to two hours, and just relax. And so based on that, you’re going to see more lounges popping up across the valley. I 100% guarantee it.”