Without Smoke, a Rural Bar is Missing Character(s)

A smoking ban in Iowa had the unintended consequence of disrupting the social life of small towns.

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At one time, but not so much anymore, the rural Iowa bar took our social ranks, our vanities and high-hatting of others, and crushed them like so much ice in a blender.  

Small-town and working class bars are supposed to be a bit irreverent, dimly lit places to escape the bully boss, pending divorce or the drudgery of a Working Joe life. Smoking is a part of this for many Iowans – or it least it was (legally) until last July 1, when bars were included (by one vote in the Iowa House) in a sweeping indoor smoking ban.

“I’m not justifying smoking but it was part of the culture,” said Paul Lasley, chairman of both the Sociology and Anthropology departments at Iowa State University. “This disruption of social life in a small community is one of the unintended consequences of the smoking ban.”

 In the more convivial Iowa taverns of years past, the farmer with his Pall Malls eased up to the same bar with the banker and his Camels – and argued with the newspaperman who smoked American Spirits. They wondered about things like why Magic Johnson hasn’t died of AIDS yet or what’s the deal with the city council on the parks building or is it a fair bet on the golf tournament to take Tiger Woods against the field.

Now that collection of characters can huddle together, but it will be outside.

 “It’s just a total bad situation, yeah it is,” said Vickie Ewoldt, the 60-year-old owner of Vic’s Main Tap in the Southwest Iowa county seat town of Audubon. Ewoldt says her bar’s business is down about 40 percent since the start of the ban.

 As other Iowa business owners were downloading “no smoking” signs from the Internet to comply with the first day of a statewide indoor ban,  Ewoldt was scrambling for something else. She was searching for a flag,  but not an American flag and certainly not Iowa’s.
No, this longtime bar owner wanted a Soviet flag to fly outside her bar in protest of the new law.
”I was even asking someone if they had a Soviet flag because I’d hang it out,” Ewoldt said. “It’s getting more communist all the time.” 

An anti anti-smoking poster found in a bar in Grafton, Wisconsin — a bottlecap as a shield and an opener as a weapon.

Today the flag is in the bar with a sign that clearly tells people why it’s there. Some National Guardsmen took issue with its presence for reasons of more global import than whether someone was dragging down a Kool with a Bud, but were satisfied when Ewoldt knotted the bottom of the flag.  

Ewoldt, who smokes Misty Ultra Lights, has worked at the bar since 1983 – and owned it since 1986. She’s worried about business. Why pay for a beer inside the bar and then go out to the patio where Ewoldt has a heater when you can smoke at home. Ewoldt is losing customers, and unlike in the suburban chain eateries or urban centers, there isn’t a replacement class of patrons flocking to the fill the stools left behind by dispirited smokers. “I don’t have any new ones coming in,” Ewoldt said.  

In the eastern Iowa river city of Clinton, bar owners may not be any more angry than elsewhere in Iowa. But they are more organized. Clinton businessman Jonathan Van Roekel is president of Choose Freedom Iowa. About 50 bars in the Clinton area formed the Clinton Organized Bar and Restaurant Association (COBRA). Both organizations are plaintiffs in a lawsuit in Polk County challenging the legality of the ban.  

For his part Van Roekel says social class is a factor in the smoking ban as it most hurts establishment catering to the working class. “It’s the blue collar workers who primarily fund the bars and taverns,” said Van Roekel. “Right now businesses are suffering. They’re dying.” 

Lasley, a co-investigator of the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, said some of the anger of the smoking ban in rural parts of the state may reflect other concerns. “I suspect that part of that is the acknowledgment that it’s not the same anymore,” Lasley said.  

Small group dynamics are more at play in rural Iowa bars as longtime smokers, unable or unwilling to quit, are estranged from places where they may have been fixtures for decades. “It’s probably more visible than it would be in suburban or urban settings,” Lasley said. “We’re probably underestimating the value of affiliation.” 

A native of Queen City, Mo., Lasley thinks the legislature should have exempted bars from the smoking ban. “We’re talking about adults, adult behavior,” he said.  

Lasley said local control in this case makes sense and he sees a compromise possible excluding those under 21 from smoking venues. “Maybe we ought to rethink that and have an exclusion,” he said of the current law. “The local bar owners should be able to work these things out without a prohibition.”

 

 

 

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