Lighten up – Petruccelli wants to overturn ban on cigar bars

The controversial decision by Boston’s Public Health Commission (BPHC) to ban smoking establishments like Tuff’s Tobacco Cigar Shop on Bennington in East Boston may be overturned at the State House.

Senator Anthony Petruccelli cosponsored a bill last week that would make the BPHC’s 2008 ruling to close all cigar and hookah bars by 2018 obsolete.

Petruccelli’s measure passed in the Senate by a 21-17 vote. The bill will now go to conference committee where Petruccelli hopes it will have the support of both the House and Senate.

“This is about protecting small business against a rogue agency that has gone off the reservation,” said Petruccelli. “Banning smoking in the work place, in restaurants, in bars is one thing but the sole purpose of a cigar bar is to provide a comfortable setting for people who enjoy smoking cigars. As a consumer you know what you are getting into when you enter an establishment like that and as an employee you know you are going to be around smoke. The BPHC ruling two years ago went too far.”

Tuff’s Tobacco owner Jimmy Shenna agrees with Petruccelli and questioned BPHC’s reasoning.

“The only people coming into a cigar bar are coming in to smoke,” said Shenna, whose business is considered an anchor business in Orient Heights Square by many neighbors. “I can see keeping tobacco products or second hand smoke away from children, employees or patrons of bars and restaurants but including cigar bars makes no sense.”

Shenna said most cigar bars are locally run small businesses and removing them from Boston only hurts the local economy.

“They are driving these businesses out of Boston and they’ll go elsewhere,” said Shenna. “They really are not taking into considerations that these type of businesses are mom and pop establishments.”

Shenna understands that the city is trying to keep tobacco out of the hands of children and that is something he agrees with. However, he said the city has failed to truly regulate tobacco products.

“If you truly want to regulate tobacco then make it only available in tobacco shops,” suggested Shenna.

Shenna’s suggestion does make sense on many fronts. For example, Shenna holds a license to sell tobacco and another license to allow smoking in his establishment. He is allowed the second license because a majority of his sales are directly related to tobacco and not food, liquor or other goods and services. Convenience stores, supermarkets and other stores have the same license to sell tobacco but smoking is not allowed in those establishments because most of their sales come from other commodities.

So if a convenience store, supermarket or another store gets caught selling tobacco or tobacco products to minors they are fined and have their license to sell tobacco suspended for few days. It doesn’t really affect these types of stores because they sell other goods and services for a profit.

However, if Shenna’s shop is fined and his license suspended he has nothing else to sell and would be forced to close his cigar shop until his license is reinstated. It’s in Shenna’s best interest as a business to make sure that everyone patronizing his establishment is over 18.

“It’s the only way it can be truly regulated,” said Shenna. “Tobacco shops and liquor stores should be designated places to buy tobacco.”

Shenna also fears that businesses like his will become obsolete with new, tougher smoking ordinances coupled with state tax increases on tobacco.

“Tobacco products bring in a billion of tax revenue in the state but our sales are decreasing, the state sales are decreasing as smokers head across the border to New Hampshire,” said Shenna. “There will be a point in time when this creates an underground market for untaxed tobacco products. I’m sure it’s probably already happening somewhere in the state.”

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