Haze of smoking ban still lingers

Changes in Juneau's nightlife scene develop outside the bar after ordinance

Posted: Thursday, July 10, 2008

Like Mafioso calculating their next nefarious deed, huddles of people can be seen on any given day along the sidewalks outside the bars in Juneau's downtown corridor since the smoking ban went into effect on Jan. 2.

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David Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David Sheakley / Juneau Empire

It's been six months since the city implemented the final stages of an ordinance that required all bars to become smoke free, and a cloud of mixed feelings still lingers over the community half a year later.

Some smokers are indifferent to the change and have embraced the new clean air regulations, some nonsmokers continue to disagree with the local government's clamp-down on personal freedoms, while others have concerns about the congregations of people clogging up the sidewalks and the mosaic of cigarette butts discarded in the gutters.

While smoking a cigarette outside the Imperial Billiard & Saloon recently, Nick Fargnoli said he enjoys the bar atmosphere more since the clean air ordinance went into effect.

"I'm a smoker but it's kind of cool that you don't smoke in there anymore," he said. "It's kind of clean. You walk in there and it smells just fine."

Fargnoli said the nightlife scene inside the bars hasn't changed too much in Juneau since the smoking ban - it's the outside that has.

"It doesn't seem like there are fewer people down here but there is a lot more people outside," he said. "There's a lot more fights. I've noticed that there's a lot more fights outside. There's just a lot more people outside at one time and tempers are flaring. It's not that much different but you see that there is a little bit of a difference."

While smoking a cigarette outside the Alaskan Hotel & Bar recently, Conrad Lowenstein also said the changes are more evident outside the bars.

"It does get a little more rowdy," he said. "I have seen a little bit more stuff go on outside because you can't really get away with everything in the bar. But besides that I really don't mind it so much. I mean, I do like to smoke in the bar but it's not such a big deal to me."

Sgt. Dave Campbell said the Juneau Police Department received 152 calls reporting fights between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2007, prior to the smoking ban. During the same timeframe this year, there were 110 calls reporting fights, he said.

"Of course this is for the whole city," he said. "It's not geographically broken down. But for the whole city it looks like we were down 42 from last year."

However, Campbell pointed out that statistics are difficult to discern because there is often more to the cause and effect than just a raw number. He said what is reported as a fight can turn into an assault or other charge.

The reports of people smoking in bars have been minimal since January, with only three complaints filed with JPD, Campbell said. Police have issued only four citations for smoking in a bar since the ban took effect, he added.

Leeanne Thomas, owner of the Triangle Club and member of Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant & Retailer's Association, said it hasn't been all smooth sailing.

"My business is down because of the smoking ban, and it's also very difficult to monitor patrons coming in and out who are smoking and that has put a large pressure on my bartenders," she said.

And the cigarette butts discarded in the streets have become more visible, Thomas said.

"I think it's affecting the atmosphere downtown, and I feel bad that my business was forced to do something that inflicts hardship on other downtown businesses," she said.

Streets Superintendent Mike Scott said the cigarette butts are not only more noticeable but also are diverting city resources and manpower away from other projects.

"The litter issue in general has been more of a problem," he said. "Cigarette butts as well as trash."

The city employs a couple of people during the summer through marine passengers fees to keep the downtown area clean, Scott said. This summer they have been spending extra time cleaning up cigarette butts while they could be working on repairs or preventative maintenance, he said.

"Certainly I would have to say the biggest majority of butts are where people work a lot and in front of the bars," he said.

Nonsmoker Elijah Lucas Lee said he thinks the implementation of the clean air ordinance has been a positive thing for the nightlife scene in Juneau.

"I almost counted down those days and I wondered what would happen in Juneau," he said. "I must say that I'm totally enthralled with the outcome. I feel like it's a much more pleasant place to hang out in. It has changed bars from being a total bar scene to a scene where you can bring your laptop to and hangout and be social."

And you don't have to worry anymore about your clothes smelling like smoke after leaving a bar, Lee said.

"As a nonsmoker, before the smoking ban I came into the bar because there are members of the opposite sex, and it's a popular hangout, and it's where you meet your friends, so I put up with the smoke," he said. "But since the smoking ban has been enacted, I realized what I was missing beforehand and it's pretty incredible actually."

Wendy Hamilton, Juneau Clean Air Coalition member and the tobacco program coordinator for the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence-Juneau, said she thinks the community is better off now that the clean air ordinance has been fully implemented. She said there were a few bumps in the road in the beginning of the year with people trying to contest aspects of the ordinance, but the Assembly amended the language in March that resolved the disputes. People had questioned if private clubs were included in the smoking ban and others had questions about what constituted a retail tobacco chop, which had exemptions from the smoking ban under the ordinance.

"They were loopholes that people were trying to drive a truck through and they were definitely problematic, but they were all cleaned up so we ended up with a much tighter, more cohesive ordinance," Hamilton said.

It's not surprising that the doom and gloom scenarios that some people were predicting have not come to fruition, she said.

"Really what has been found throughout the nation is that once these laws go into effect it's nothing like the fear and projections that have been put out there," she said. "You just move forward and people don't stop going to bars. It's just a blip on the screen of social change."

The transition has actually been relatively quiet, Hamilton said.

"They seem to be adhering to the law, and I'm not sure what the business is doing because I don't go to bars so I can't speak to that, but we certainly haven't had any complaints," she said. "It's very quiet."

Luke Roesel, a registered nurse, said he understands the health aspect of the ordinance but believes that the bar owners should have the choice to decide whether or not smoking is allowed in their establishments.

"I don't like the idea of a ban," he said. "I stick to that, but it's a healthier place to be for sure."

Secondhand smoke is "absolutely" a health issue and the intent of the ordinance is not to stifle anybody's rights, Hamilton said.

"We always like to reiterate that it's not about the right to smoke," she said. "That's not what this is about. It's the same with regulating guns. It's not about the right to have a gun and use a gun. It's about using it in a way that doesn't harm others."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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