By Jenny Neyman
After 9 p.m. Saturday night, Smokin’ Joe Camel was the only one in Kenai Joe’s bar with a cigarette in his mouth.
It’s not because the bar was empty; quite the contrary. Even with it being a fair-weathered, still-light-outside Memorial Day weekend evening, the traditional Alaska kickoff to camping, fishing, barbecuing and all-things-outdoors season, there still was a respectable crowd in the dimly lit bar. Patrons came to shoot pool, have a few drinks and listen to 907, Kenai’s “rootsy Alaskan” band.
On any other night, the glow from the neon beer signs and the plastic display window on the cigarette machine in the corner would be augmented by occasional quick flares of a lighter, followed by the glowing cherry signaling a drag of oxygen through a cigarette.
But not this particular Saturday. For the duration of the band’s performance, Kenai Joe’s was a smoke-free establishment.
Memorial Day weekend was the fourth smoke-free night 907 had at the bar, and Kenai Joe’s has since expanded the practice with Ten Cent Zen playing last weekend and this weekend, with July 23 and 30 being smoke-free nights. 907 is scheduled to play again Aug. 12 and 13, with the 13th being a smoke-free night. The intention is to draw in a new crowd, patrons who love live music, but not enough to put up with cigarette smoke.
“It was just trying to do something a little different, mostly trying to open up the
chance for that other demographic to come out,” said Robb Justice, singer and guitarist with 907. “It wasn’t anything to bash the smokers or anything like that, it was not an anti-smoking campaign, but more so a chance for everybody to come out and see us play, because some people just won’t come out if the bars are smoky.”
Justice approached the bar’s owner, Dale Howard, over the winter, who was game to give it a try. So far, so good, Justice said.
“It’s been a 100 percent success,” Justice said. “It’s definitely a lot of different faces that come out, people that never came to watch us before come out to see us on the smoke-free nights.”
Laura Sievert and Curt Wilcox came out to listen to the band specifically Saturday night, as opposed to Friday’s performance when smoking was allowed.
“I really like these guys, but I would rather come out on a smoke-free night. If it was smoke-free all the time I would come out a lot more,” Sievert said.
She and Wilcox enjoy live music and lament the relative lack of smoke-free nightlife venues in Kenai.
They had already sat through a smoky bar the night before to mark a special occasion.
“We didn’t have anywhere to go to celebrate. We went to a popular bar in Kenai last night, and you put on special clothes to go there so your regular ones don’t stink,” Wilcox said.
There are a few coffee shops that offer acoustic music in Kenai, but there’s only room for one or two performers, and they typically close up shop around the time nightlife hours begin. Kenai Joe’s small stage offers cozy quarters for a full band, but 907 is able to make it work, squeezing in three guitarists, a bassist, a drummer and an occasional guest slide guitarist amongst its speakers, stage lights and amplifiers.
It’s a rare treat to have a live band to spice up nightlife in Kenai, with the Bow Bar being the only other regular band venue in town. It’s even more rare to have a live music at night unobscured by smoke.
“There’s not that much live music in Kenai so I think these guys are really good. It’s great, I think, that they’re doing smoke-free here,” Sievert said.
Although, “smoke-free” is a bit of a misnomer. The walls, ceiling and fixtures have marinated in decades of cigarette smoke. A vending machine offering various options of tobacco products still sits near the restrooms. And the visage of Smokin’ Joe Camel, the mascot of Camel cigarettes, hangs on a back wall by the dartboard, with a stubbed-out cigarette pursed in one nostril.
One night of nonsmoking doesn’t fumigate all odors and residue from the place, but it does make the atmosphere more inviting for those that prefer to avoid secondhand smoke.
“It’s such a noticeable difference. Everybody in the band has commented how much better they feel afterward. It’s so nice not stinking,” Justice said.
Initially the band was worried that smoking patrons, especially the bar’s
regulars, would bristle at being told they couldn’t light up for a night. They purposefully hold smoke-free nights back to back with regular, smoking-allowed performances. In the band’s smoke-free performances so far, Justice said they’ve only heard one patron grouse when being told they needed to step outside to light up.
“Even the regulars. I’ve been outside cooling off in the set breaks and they say, ‘Ah, it’s nice to come outside to smoke.’ We haven’t gotten any bit of a hard time,” Justice said.
Howard said that patrons have been amiable about stepping outside to smoke, especially during the summer. He quit smoking himself about 12 years ago, but didn’t agree to smoke-free nights to try to legislate other people’s choices.
“I’m not really trying to make a statement, I’m just trying to make some money,” said Howard, who has owned Kenai Joe’s since 1989.
Going smoke-free can be good for business, said Jenny Olendorff, program coordinator for the Kenai Peninsula Smoke-free Partnership and co-chair of the Alaska Tobacco Control Alliance. Her organization helped 907 promote its smoke-free nights.
“(907) proved that people will come into a smoke-free bar that would not otherwise come if it was smoking. We’re happy to promote that,” she said. “Just to show people you don’t lose business. In fact, you gain business. Eighty percent of people don’t use tobacco and won’t go into a smoky bar.”
Nonsmoking ordinances cover public facilities and many workplaces these days. But ordinances proposed in 2003 in Kenai and Soldotna aiming to extinguish smoking in bars, as well as restaurants and other workplaces, similar to the nonsmoking ordinance in Anchorage, failed at both city councils. Still, the Kenai Peninsula has come a long way in realizing and limiting the effects of secondhand smoke, Olendorff said.
“Back in the day I remember when there was smoking on airplanes. My mom remembers smoking in hospitals. Our goal today is that smoking in a workplace is not even considered. Like asbestos in a classroom, it’s just not even considered,” Olendorff said. “We’re really excited about the prospects for the future. By and large businesses in this area are totally on-board to doing things voluntarily, and that’s just a really exciting thing. Our community is becoming more and more educated about secondhand smoke and wanting to do the right thing.”
Olendorff said she’d like to see regulations passed at the city, borough and/or statewide level outlawing smoking in all workplaces. But that’s an uphill battle. For now, it’s more important to get grassroots support for banning smoking in workplaces.
“Honestly, it’s most important to be addressing education on the local level. A statewide imitative is great, but if you don’t have support in the local level, it doesn’t do much good,” she said.
Howard said he doesn’t want to ban smoking outright at Kenai Joe’s, but thinks the day is coming when the city or borough passes an ordinance that all bars be smoke-free, like Anchorage has.
“It’s coming. Everything California does, Anchorage does. And everything Anchorage does Kenai-Soldotna does. I don’t think it should be that way, but there it is,” Howard said.
Justice said he doesn’t support regulations banning smoking in bars, because he doesn’t like the idea of forcing smoke-free status on business owners. But if it’s a voluntary choice to clear the air, even if only temporarily, he’s for it.
“I think people should be able to make their own decisions, but I think it’s obvious that it’s good for business,” Justice said. “I think that people are definitely starting to realize how good for business smoke-free is. It’s amazing for me that it’s taken so long, but I think in the next year or so we’ll see other venues set up for that. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it stem out from Joe’s.”