Smoky or smoke-free?

Janet Urquhart
Scott Lutwyche enjoys a smoke on the patio of the Red Onion on May 18, the day the establishment went nonsmoking. Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.

Smoking or nonsmoking?That’s not a question Aspen diners have answered for close to two decades, thanks to a groundbreaking smoking ban the resort put in place long before such laws were commonplace. And yet, the town that is nearly fanatical about fitness has fallen behind the anti-smoking curve by tolerating those who light up. Or, to put it another way, perhaps Aspen is still leading the pack – now with its willingness to accommodate smokers in a handful of watering holes.

Colorado came close to enacting a statewide smoking ban that extended to bars and taverns this spring. The legislation, which died in the state Senate earlier this month, was more restrictive than Aspen’s, generating some mixed feelings on the local level. Some barkeepers were quietly hoping it would pass, others breathed a sigh of relief when it didn’t.Aspen’s bars escaped the town’s own far-reaching smoking ban, adopted by the City Council in August 1985 over the objections of local restaurateurs and smokers in general.”It was pretty broad – very broad for its time,” said Lee Cassin, Aspen’s environmental health director. “The people who pushed it wanted to be on the cutting edge, and it was,” agreed John Walla, then-manager of the Ute City Banque and head of the local group of restaurateurs. “It didn’t matter to them if it was unfair to the tourists. We definitely lost and infuriated a lot of tourists for a few years – especially from Europe.”Aspen was among the first places in the country to adopt a comprehensive smoking ban. Ashtrays disappeared from the workplace, retail areas and restaurants, though the ban was softened to exempt restaurants that could provide separately ventilated seating areas for smokers. Bars and taverns, where food service was incidental to the operation, were also exempt, as were bar areas within restaurants.”People felt people wouldn’t drink in bars if they couldn’t smoke in bars. That’s why that was left in,” Cassin said.But in general, the smoke cleared in Aspen.

“Before, people would smoke in grocery stores, in restaurants, in bank service lines while they were waiting to get their checks cashed, in offices,” Cassin recalled. “It was terrible … someone in the office always smoked.”The Ute City Banque, now the Ute City Bar & Grill, installed a separate ventilation system so it could offer a smoking section in the dining room’s balcony, Walla recalled. The restaurant actually fared well in the wake of the ban, as it was among the few places diners could still smoke.Today, the restaurant/bar doesn’t allow smoking until late in the evening, after dining hours are over. Other establishments, including Jimmy’s, have taken a similar approach to accommodating smokers.Meanwhile, several local taverns, as well as bar areas within restaurants, have chosen to banish smokers to patios and courtyards in deference to nonsmokers and employees who would otherwise endure long hours in smoky environs.’Smokers on the run’In the 20 years since it banned smoking in most public areas, Aspen has moved from the forefront to the middle of the pack. Many other areas have more comprehensive bans – butts have been stubbed statewide in California, New York and elsewhere, including bars and nightclubs. Nearby Summit County and its four largest towns – Frisco, Breckenridge, Dillon and Silverthorne – are approaching the one-year anniversary of a smoking ban that extends to public buildings and businesses, including bars.

Last week, Steamboat Springs enacted a smoking ban at restaurants, bars, athletic fields, outdoor amphitheaters and workplaces, effective July 1.Already, one can’t light up at a bar in Snowmass Village, Greeley, Boulder County and a growing list of places around Colorado. Pueblo enacted a ban that extended to bars and bowling alleys two years ago, but not without a fight. Opponents forced a referendum on the ban and a recall of the four council members who voted to adopt it; the ban was upheld at the polls and one council member was booted from office.Residents of Seattle are now circulating a petition that would put a city smoking ban on its November ballot.”Smokers are on the run at this point,” Walla observed.They’re even being chased out of their traditional sanctuary – the great outdoors.Earlier this year, San Francisco banned smoking in its public parks and other city-owned spaces, including popular tourist draws like Golden Gate Park. Other California cities have also taken that step.Black Mountain of Maine Ski Resort purportedly became the first to ban tobacco use at a U.S. ski area. Its ban, in effect last winter, forbids the use of cigarettes, cigars, pipes and chewing tobacco everywhere on the mountain, including lifts, parking lots and lodge buildings.

“The nonsmoking battle has moved from the indoors to the outdoors. It’s the new battleground,” said David Perry, senior vice president of the Aspen Skiing Co.The Skico has not given serious discussion to banning smoking on local slopes, though its on-mountain restaurants are all smoke-free, he said. “Usually, it comes up jokingly when you get a whiff of cannabis smoke coming off a chairlift or when a gondola door opens,” Perry said.In reality, an on-mountain smoking ban would be difficult to enforce, he concluded.Showing smokers the doorIn town, there has been no push to strengthen Aspen’s smoking ban.

In fact, a 1997 ballot question polled voters on the town’s anti-smoking ordinance. With four options, most voters indicated the city’s existing regulations are “about right” and don’t need tweaking.”I think we’ve kind of fallen off the boat here in the last 10 years,” lamented Bill Stirling, mayor when Aspen enacted its ban. “I don’t know what the heck happened.”The City Council was asked to take a position on the proposed statewide ban working its way through the Legislature this spring, but Mayor Helen Klanderud said she wanted to poll affected businesses first. Initially, the legislation would have banned smoking in private clubs as well as public bars, impacting places like the local Elks and Eagles lodges, and the Caribou Club. Ongoing amendments to the bill made it difficult to pinpoint its effects, and the bill died before the council had a chance to weigh in.Klanderud, a smoker, had personal reservations about the bill. “It appeared to be based more on economic grounds than health concerns,” she said.The legislation was spurred by several neighboring Front Range jurisdictions, some with bans and some without, Klanderud noted. A statewide law was seen as a way to level the playing field for businesses.In Aspen, a stricter smoking ban wouldn’t force smokers to the town next door, but some individual bars have shown smokers the door, even if it means patrons go elsewhere in town.Just last week, the Red Onion banned smoking from Aspen’s longest-running saloon.

“Sure I’m worried that it will affect business,” said Onion owner “Wabs” Walbert, “but I think it will be better for the employees and better for the ambiance of the Red Onion.”Little Annie’s Eating House and The Cantina both eliminated smoking from their bar areas several years ago.”We had a lot of people complain, but for every one who complained, we had five or six people say they were glad we did it,” said Chuck Darnall, a longtime Cantina bartender.R.T. Flanagan took ownership of McStorlie’s Pub on Jan. 21 and banned smoking a week later. Smokers now step outside to the bar’s courtyard to light up.At Bentley’s, an Aspen bar that still welcomes smokers, bar manager Tim Bixler was hoping the state Legislature would do what the bar has not. But, over at the J-Bar, bartender Erik Guffrey was glad the measure didn’t pass. The bar remains one of the few in Aspen where a smoker can light up; kicking smokers out would be bad for business, he fears.At the Cooper Street Pier, a restaurant that does most of its business in beverage sales, owner Charles Wolf wouldn’t dare ban smoking.

“There are too many smokers that are part of our clientele,” he said. “The big question is, how would smokers behave if there was no smoking in bars? Would they stay home more? It’s a possibility, and as a bar owner, it’s one I worry about.”Letting Wolf and other bar owners set their own rules is preferable to the heavy-handed approach of a government-imposed smoking ban, as far as Mayor Klanderud’s concerned.”What has impressed me about Aspen is the number of restaurants and bars that have eliminated smoking of their own accord,” she said. “I’d much rather see that. It makes much more sense to me.”Aspen needs both establishments that ban smoking and ones that embrace it, reasons Jack Johnson, a smoker and City Council candidate.”I think any town needs different types of bars,” he said.”You know, smoking is a legal activity,” Johnson pointed out. “Is it healthy? No. But I don’t think anyone went to the Roaring Fork Tavern [now defunct] or McStorlie’s for their health.”Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is


Asher on Aspen: Find your church

On a recent September Saturday morning, I awoke with an intense yearning to lose myself in the mountains, disconnect from cell service, and rediscover why I decided to call Aspen home in the first place. Standing there, at the Cathedral Lake trailhead, I knew I was right where I needed to be.

See more