Struggling clubs can't see being Fraternal Order of Nonsmokers

Posted: Friday, April 16, 2004

Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire.

The downtown Juneau Elks Club is a throwback. It's purple, for one thing. It serves half-pitchers of old-fashioned American lager, and members drink it. People like belonging. Eddie Rabbitt still loves a rainy night.

And everyone smokes. How '70s is that?

"That's one of the reasons we go there - we can smoke," says Elks trustee Carol Carlson, who meets friends for lunch a few times a week.

And if Juneau bans smoking in all public gathering places?

"I probably wouldn't go in there much anymore," she says. "If I go out for a drink, I want a smoke. I'm not going to stand out in the cold."

You've heard this argument before, from Juneau's bar owners and smoking customers. You've heard the other side, too, both from those who hate all vices and those who just want a drink and a breather. There's not much middle ground, absent private investment in a nonsmoking bar. Either you let people smoke in bars and the nonsmokers buck up and save for dry cleaning, or you ban smoking and the smokers get to be the ones deciding how much they need nightlife. No amount of study will help. Everyone knows smoke is dangerous. Everyone knows the personal-choice elements in this game. Everyone has an argument, and most of them make sense.

But what about when you're paying $114 a year and have to ring a buzzer to come in off Franklin Street? Should you be able to smoke while watching the game or pulling your pull tabs and donating the losings to charity? Show me a fraternal brother or sister who says no.

The Elks are worried. And maybe they have reason to be. Carlson has been attending the Juneau Assembly's hearings on the proposed smoke ban, incredulous at the prospect. She fears it will hasten the club's decline. She notes that fraternal organizations nationwide just don't pull them in anymore. She remembers the 1990s, when the lodge counted more than a thousand members. Now she says it has about 400. It used to be a rite of adulthood: graduate, get a job, join the bowling league, join the club. But then came my generation, X. I've never even joined a record club.

Barb Whitcraft joined the Elks in 1971. She doesn't think it would be fair to ban smoking in a club, and she'd miss her friends if they stopped coming.

"I've been a widow six years and I feel comfortable coming here," she says. "If something happens to me, these guys will take care of me. It's a family."

Bartender Darrel Jerue says that's the way it is with members. They like the familiarity. They tend to be older - no younger than 30 - because they've tired of the bar scene and want a more relaxing hangout.

Wednesday evening was spaghetti night at the club. Jerue says such weeknight events might draw 20. At 7 p.m. there were seven.

"Ninety-five percent of my clientele smokes," Jerue says. "Everyone here has a cigarette. I smoke, myself."

Ninety-five percent is the same figure Carlson uses to estimate smoking members. And those who don't smoke keep coming.

"I don't think you ought to (ban smoking) in a private club," says nonsmoking Elk Wayne Edgar, a visitor Wednesday from the lodge in Burien, Wash. "Whether it's here or Seattle or wherever, the members ought to decide that."

It seems sacrifice enough to give up smoking in bars. Bourbon, tobacco and bluegrass: Appalachia's gifts. Three great tastes that taste great together. I suppose most can manage with two out of three.

But what's a throwback to do? The Fraternal Order of Nonsmokers just doesn't work.

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