One year smoke-free

Despite being relatively stringent compared to similar bans elsewhere in the country, North Dakota’s statewide indoor public smoking ban that voters approved with 67 percent of the vote in November 2011 has been well obeyed and hasn’t created many serious problems, according to local law enforcement officials.

“We’ve gotten very good compliance from the establishments, and they kind of police themselves,” said Ward County Sheriff Steve Kukowski. “We’ve had very, very few smoking complaint calls. The compliance has been exceptional.”

Likewise, when tasked with compiling the number of citations handed out for smoking violations since the law took effect on Dec. 6, 2012, Senior Officer Todd Haman of the Minot Police Department could find records of only three citations.

Instead, compliance seemed to be a natural occurrence and the most officers seem to have to do is give out a warning or remind patrons of the rule and it gets taken care of.

“I know me, personally, I gave quite a few warnings,” Haman said.

“People and businesses seem to be doing a good job enforcing the law themselves,” he added.

The self-enforcement was something that Ward County State’s Attorney Rozanna Larson had predicted when interviewed for a Dec. 6, 2012, article in The Minot Daily News, the day the law took effect.

“Some people don’t know. A lot of people don’t realize,” Kukowski added. “They’ve come here after the law was passed and were not told about it. They just go outside to smoke and they don’t know about the law, so you just tell them about it and they comply.”

The basics of the law expand upon and replace a 2005 ban on smoking in restaurants in the state. Now customers are also not allowed to smoke in bars or even smoke shops. Also, every business, whether within the hospitality industry or not, has to put no-smoking signs in conspicuous places around the building and in company vehicles.

Also, there are no more “smoking rooms” in hotels throughout the state, as smoking in hotels was also banned.

But smokers don’t just need to get outside to smoke. They have to go at least 20 feet from any doorway, window capable of opening or air conditioning units connected to the building.

Of course, there is the economic effect of such a ban.

“The impact since it passed has varied from business to business,” said Rudie Martinson, executive director of the North Dakota Hospitality Association, a group looking out for the interests of the hospitality industry in the state. “Some businesses have not seen too much of an impact and others have seen double-digit (percent) losses in revenue.”

Of course, there is the mitigating aspect of having a statewide ban. Problems associated with smaller scale bans in municipalities or counties would not be the same as with such a wide ban.

North Dakota was already surrounded by states that had passed their own indoor public smoking bans. Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana all have full bans in the three categories of restaurants, bars and non-hospitality workplaces.

“I remember there was a surge to North Dakota when Minnesota banned smoking,” Martinson said.

Likewise, when the City of Bismarck created its own municipal ban, there was a surge across the river into Mandan so that smokers could indulge in their cravings while out and about. Bismarck bars suffered somewhat.

“Generally speaking, some bars have told me that they’ve seen a 25 to 30 percent loss in the beginning, and some have said that they’ve since come back to maybe 15 or 20 percent, but that’s still a 15 or 20 percent loss from years before,” Martinson said of the statewide ban.

“Some people ask me if this is really such a big deal and I say, ‘Imagine you’re the business owner,’ and yeah, it would be a pretty big deal to you,” he added.

But where those customers take their business instead is unknown.

Unlike the Minnesota ban, which led western Minnesotans to cross the border into eastern North Dakota cities to smoke in bars, or the Bismarck ban, which people got around by going to Mandan, there’s no place left for smokers to take their business.

No choices left. So, the only logical conclusion is that they’re staying at home more often.

“Shortly after the law passed, we had heard of some initial problems and confusion over some of the aspects of the law,” Martinson said.

One of those confusing aspects was the provision to not allow businesses to build shelters outdoors for their smoking patrons.

A shelter is defined in the law as any “building” that is enclosed by 33 percent or more. The confusion came because the enclosure included any type of construction, even if it allows for air to freely pass through it.

“That type of uncertainty isn’t good for businesses, either,” Martinson said.

While compliance has been relatively easy and consistent regarding the ban, the police would prefer to be the final point of contact if there is a problem.

“Before calling us, just try to contact the business, and if that doesn’t work and it’s a persistent problem, then you can call us and we can take care of it further,” Haman said.

“Just in general terms of the smoking ban,” Martinson said in his final thought on the matter, “it was something that we were not in favor of. … As an industry, though we may have not agreed with it while it was being debated, now that the people have spoken, we have done our best to come into compliance with it.”