Tobacco officer helps clear the air in Gallatin County

A few months ago, while in the hospital recovering from a serious motorcycle accident, Rick Gale remembers his doctor asking him those standard medical questions:

Do you have any allergies? Are you taking any medications? Do you smoke?

It was that last question that almost cracked Gale up. He replied, “You don’t know what I do for a living, do you?”

What Gale does for a living is complicated. He’s half-politician, half-teacher and half-professional bar hopper. And yes, that’s three halves — a total that seems commensurate with the amount of work Gale squeezes into each day.

 

Gale coordinates the Gallatin County Tobacco Prevention Program, part of a statewide effort to keep Montanans away from tobacco.

The program is funded by money from a 1998 settlement with the four big tobacco companies. The settlement has brought Montana more than $300 million — so far — to pay for anti-smoking programs.

It’s a goal that the former teacher, former park ranger, former Marine tackles with vigor every day.

“It’s the kind of job where you’re not sitting around in an office all day,” he said.

Indeed, most of Gale’s days involve visiting bars and casinos in Gallatin County to make sure they’re complying with the Clean Indoor Air Act, which prohibits smoking inside buildings open to the public.

Gale goes from bar to bar, talking about tobacco with owners and managers, bartenders and waiters, customers and … well, whoever else catches his eye. He makes sure businesses have no-smoking stickers on their doors and distributes reams of information about the clean air act.

“I like meeting with people and talking about the public health issue and hearing all these personal stories,” he said. “When you hear those personal stories, it really makes a connection.”

Bars and casinos in Montana had four years longer than other businesses to go tobacco-free. In the year since the deadline, 99 percent of businesses statewide have complied with the law, Gale said.

In that time, he’s only had three formal complaints filed in the county. (When he gets enough complaints about a business, he turns them over to the county attorney to levy fines.)

Getting his foot in the door at small bars in the county was tough at times, he said. It didn’t help that he started out wearing a suit and a tie — a quick path to a cold reception.

“There are some places where I wouldn’t want my wife going in to check on compliance,” he said.

Now he wears jeans and a blazer, along with his Montana-shaped name tag — “the governor’s look,” he joked. People, especially at this time of year, ask him what office he’s running for.

Professionalism and friendliness go a long way with business owners, he said.

“I try not to make them wrong about it,” he said of people who resist the anti-tobacco message. “Sometimes, you walk in and you’re ‘the government.’ But it’s a public health issue. I’m not the smoking Nazi or Big Brother.”

The rest of Gale’s time is spent talking with health professionals and state officials, planning TV commercials and anti-tobacco campaigns like 1,400 Soles and Project Pink Lungs.

He gives speeches, works with schools, veterans and the National Guard, maintains an information-rich website, writes newsletters, coordinates with his counterparts in other counties and talks with out-of-state groups.

“I really enjoy working with all these different pieces,” he said. “But you get so busy getting the job done that sometimes it’s hard to stop and consider the help that you’re providing.”

It’s about helping people quit, about treating the addiction and about helping people live longer, healthier lives, he said.

For more information about Gale’s work, visitwww.tobaccofreegallatin.org.

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