Cigar shop owner seeks changes to Maine laws

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

The owner of the William Perry Cigar Lounge in Bridgton has enlisted the help of Maine State Senator James Hamper in his quest to amend the law banning food and drink from his tobacco specialty store. Jim Apovian said he doesn’t want to interfere with Maine’s smoke-free laws, but that “it’s ridiculous” that he cannot allow his customers “to bring a cup of coffee into the cigar shop.”

On Apovian’s behalf, Hamper is sponsoring LD 22, “An Act to Promote Equity in Business Opportunity for Tobacco Specialty Stores.” The bill is now under work session review by the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. Tobacco specialty stores, the only place of business where customers can now legally smoke, are defined as retail businesses under 2,000 square feet, in which at least 60% of yearly sales come from tobacco or tobacco-related products. The proposed bill would strike language prohibiting “the on-premises service, preparation or consumption of food or drink” in tobacco specialty stores that opened after Jan. 1, 2007.

At an initial hearing held Feb. 14, strong opposition to the proposed legislation emerged from a handful of anti-smoking organizations, all of which said that any relaxation of laws would open a door that they fought long and hard to close.

“Since first passed in 1993, Maine’s workplace smoke-free air laws have been a model for the nation,” wrote Ed Miller of the American Lung Association in Maine. “When the indoor smoking ban was extended to bars and restaurants in 2006, Maine was only one of 16 states to do so,” he added.

Miller said that after the 2006 law was passed, the Legislature became concerned that tobacco specialty stores may be able to circumvent it because they still maintained licenses for the on-premise consumption of food and beverage, including alcohol. “Essentially, (they) had found a way to operate as a bar or restaurant that still allowed smoking,” Miller wrote.

As a result, in 2007 the Legislature passed LD 859, which restricted the consumption of food and beverages to only those tobacco specialty stores that held licenses prior to Jan. 1, 2007. Miller said he knows of only one or two such stores still operating in the state.

Selling social atmosphere, not just cigars

Apovian said he is not trying to exploit any loopholes or circumvent any anti-smoking laws. He does not allow cigarettes to be smoked in his lounge, and does not intend to ever do so. He wants the law to reflect the way a cigar lounge operates, is all. It’s not just a store, where customers come in, grab their brand of cigar, and go on their way.

When he opened the William Perry Cigar Lounge a year and a half ago in the William Perry House, a historic building on Main Hill, he did so to create a social atmosphere where high-end cigar aficionados could gather and relax. Only a portion of the space is a store; there are also two separate lounges, one a sports lounge with TV, the other a place for quieter pursuits of relaxation.

“It’s not a five-minute event,” Apovian said, of the process of sampling and buying a cigar. Many of his regular customers spend an hour or more at his lounge, either during breaks in their workday or after work. “If they want to bring in a pizza they bought from down the street, right now they can’t do that,” said Apovian, who testified before the committee on behalf of the bill.

Hamper, in his testimony, said LD 22 is about promoting business, “and allowing some 60 small businesses the freedom to make changes in the way they do business.” Hamper said, “With strict interpretation of Maine Statute, if a patron of a tobacco specialty store walks into the store with a bottle of water in his or her hand, they have broken the law. That law breaker…also had better spit out the piece of gum in their mouth also because chewing gum is defined as food.”

Hamper said, “This bill does nothing to change tobacco laws and does not promote smoking; its purpose is to give a few business owners a little more freedom to make business decisions.”

Apovian said he is not seeking to operate a restaurant or sell liquor at his cigar lounge, but would like to give customers the choice of bringing in some refreshments when they come to smoke a cigar. Both food and drink are allowed whenever the lounge has hosted a private event, he noted.

But Hilary Schneider, state director of government relations and advocacy for the Cancer Action Network, said passage of the bill would create a slippery slope.

“While the sponsor’s intent may be to ‘level the playing field,’ in fact, this bill will create even greater inequity in business opportunity for coffee shops, restaurants, bars and other establishments that serve food and drink.” She said that if LD 22 were passed, “You would create a business environment where some businesses that look, feel, and smell like a restaurant, coffee shop or bar could allow smoking and others that look, feel, and smell the same way cannot.”

 

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