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News: What’s Up with North Dakota?

19 Nov 2012

I was stunned when I learned about North Dakota voting for an extremely restrictive smoking ban. I lived for a couple of years in the Great Plains, and it isn’t the area I think would take such action. In fact, an oft-repeated joke was, “People say Midwesterners don’t question things. But that’s not true. They question everything. The question they ask is, ‘Why would we want to do that?’”

If you’re not familiar with North Dakota, here are a few random facts from my research to provide a little prospective. The population is under 700,000, putting it above only Vermont and Wyoming. Republicans have a near-lock on statewide political offices. It has the lowest state unemployment rate (3%), ranks 24th in percentage of cigarette smokers, is home to three of the nation’s 100 poorest counties, and ranks 41st in per capita income. Among its attractions are Salem Sue, the world’s largest cow (six tons of fiberglass); the geographic center of North America in Rugby; the Roger Maris Baseball Museum; and numerous wildlife refuges and parks.

Other November referendums were to repeal a poll tax on the books for more than 100 years (approved) and to strengthen what have been described as extraordinarily lax animal cruelty laws (defeated).

“I thought we would be one of the last places this would happen,” said Todd Pryor in Minot, North Dakota, home to a noted Air Force base. “You know, cowboys…” For Pryor, with whom I spoke by phone, this isn’t a philosophical discussion. It’s business, pure and simple. Or, perhaps more accurately, lack of business.

Pryor is the owner of the Great Plains Smoke Shop in Minot, one of the few traditional tobacco shops in the state. His shop is also coupled with a cigar bar, where smoking had been permitted. Under the new law, that’s forbidden. And Pryor can’t simply open a smoking lounge in the shop portion because the law bans that, too.

Before the election, Pryor said, there was little, if any, opposition activity from tobacco companies, smoking rights groups, or even electronic cigarette organizations, whose non-tobacco devices fall under the law as well. The only news coverage I could find on the potential impact focused exclusively on cigarette smoking, and a reporter who covered the issue in Fargo, North Dakota’s largest city, told me she hadn’t written about cigars.

When the law goes into effect, probably next month, Pryor’s only smoking option will be to set up a patio area at least 20 feet from the shop’s door, with just a roof or fence allowed as structures. Even with heaters and thermal underwear, outdoor smoking in Minot—where the average high doesn’t even hit 60 degrees seven months of the year and rests below freezing in December, January, and February—is at best a sometimes thing.

Pryor said he doesn’t know yet what the impact of the ban will be on his seven-year-old shop. He’s not sure he’ll be able to keep the bar going. And how do his customers feel about all this? “They’re pissed as hell,” Pryor said.

-George E

photo credit: Flickr

Drew Estate