Our lungs, ourselves: Smoking in Wyoming bars

 

In a victory for health activists, non-smokers are increasingly able to enter workplaces, restaurants, bars and outdoor patios without breathing secondhand cigarette smoke. Smoking bans of various levels of restrictiveness are being enacted all around the country, and even my state of Wyoming, historically resistant to knee-jerk social change, has seen a few communities unplug their Smoke Eater ashtrays.

Yet I can't help thinking that a statewide ban on smoking in Wyoming is not only unrealistic but unwise.

For the last three years, I've spent lots of time hanging out in the smokiest places I can find. I've been on a systematic tour of Wyoming bars because I'm writing a book about them — though that's another story. The bars I visit are in tiny towns, in the remote outback of Wyoming's high plains or lonely deserts. They are the sort of places where everyone knows everyone, where people drop in day or night for a beer, cup of coffee, six-pack to go, bite to eat, or to find out whether Earl and Betty have finished calving. Bars are where people go for human company in vast Wyoming. And yes, lots of people in them smoke.

For the record, I don't smoke. I don't mind occasionally smelling like eau d'ashtray for the cause of writing a book. But am I glad that my town of Laramie enacted a smoking ban in all public places — bars, too — as of April 2005.

One typically smoky Wyoming saloon I visited for my bar tour is Dad's Bar in Thayne, Wyo., population 341. That's in the Star Valley of western Wyoming, just south of Jackson Hole. Sitting around Dad's one afternoon, I told my companions about the new non-smoking ordinance in Laramie. It got them so mad the bar rattled with the coughing-clatter of a half-dozen hacking smokers.

"Nobody will ever come in here and tell us we can't smoke in our own bar," they wheezed. They could understand a smoking ban enacted by folks in Colorado or by the pointy-headed intellectuals and health nuts in Laramie — who should move to Boulder with the other granola-eating tree -huggers — but in Wyoming? No way.

The folks in tiny Thayne can probably be confident in their defiance for years to come. A grassroots effort needs some grass, and in Wyoming, bans of anything are unpopular. Nonetheless, the smoking-ban effort continues in larger Wyoming towns. Cheyenne, the state's capital, became the second community to pass a smoking ordinance as restrictive as Laramie's. That happened just this summer, but Cheyenne officials wisely decided to wait until their major tourist event, Frontier Days, came and went before putting the law into effect.

Further, in a move that conjures visions of the Attica Prison Riots, the Wyoming Department of Corrections made all Wyoming prisons tobacco-free as of July 1 this year. Instead of smokes or chew, prisoners get stress balls, patches, lozenges and other devices designed to wean them from one of the few pleasures available in prison. I picture prisoners bartering nicotine gum in exchange for other goods, and somehow the image doesn't have the same scared-straight flavor. Maybe that's the idea. Meantime, at the Wyoming Honor Farm, a minimum-security prison in Riverton, escapes escalated after the ban. Men simply wandered off, only to be caught a few hours later without having made much of an effort to bug out. One has to wonder if they can't claim temporary insanity: They weren't trying to hitch to California; they were desperate for a cig.

The folks who run Dad's Bar and others around Wyoming wouldn't appreciate being turned into criminals because their customers have a smoke or two with their drinks. After all, these bars are their hangouts, their second homes. I hate to think of the folks at Dad's shivering outside on the snowy sidewalk, sheltering under the racing sleigh suspended above the door, puffing on cigarettes between drinks. They might as well stay home, smoking and drinking alone.

There will be a lot of clean-lunged people in Wyoming bars if smoking is ever banned statewide. Except there won't be anybody gathering in hometown bars to visit about the weather or ask about Earl and Betty's calves. The social network will get severed in the name of health. If a smoker hacks in a bar but there's nobody there to hear, is the solution worse than the problem?

Julianne Couch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She is a writer in Laramie, Wyoming.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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