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Hub enacts strict ban on tobacco sales

Cigar bars are given 10-year grace period

By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / December 12, 2008
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Boston health regulators banned cigarette sales in drugstores and on college campuses yesterday, giving the city some of the most stringent antismoking laws in the nation.

The rules, approved unanimously by the Boston Public Health Commission, mean that starting in two months, about 75 pharmacies and a handful of campus convenience stores will be prohibited from selling any tobacco products. Starting immediately, smoking will not be permitted on the patios of restaurants and bars with outdoor service.

The regulations could also eventually lead to the extinction of cigar bars and other swank salons catering to smokers. But, responding to the economic laments of cigar bar owners, the commission revised the rules to extend from five years to a decade the grace period before those businesses will be closed. Even then, they could appeal to stay open longer.

No new cigar bars or hookah lounges, where mostly younger patrons take long drags on flavored tobacco from a communal pipe, will be allowed to open in the city.

The rules place Boston at the vanguard of the campaign to reduce ciga rette smoking. They emerge a month after state disease trackers reported that a four-year-old statewide ban on smoking in restaurants and bars appeared to be responsible for a dramatic reduction in heart attack deaths.

"Boston has taken another step that puts it in the forefront in the United States in protecting people against secondhand smoke," said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an antismoking group based in Washington, D.C. "Boston rules are now as tough or tougher than [those in] any other city in the country."

Still, a tobacco-control researcher at the Boston University School of Public Health questioned whether the ban on drugstore and campus sales will achieve its stated goal: reducing cigarette use, especially among the poor and the young. Instead, predicted Dr. Michael Siegel, smokers will go somewhere else to buy their cigarettes.

"This policy is not going to save any lives," Siegel said.

Massachusetts has long been a bellwether in regulatory efforts to reduce smoking, the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, with graphic television ads depicting the ravages of tobacco use and strict programs to prevent sales to adolescents.

Boston's measures represent the most aggressive attempt to stem smoking, and they fueled considerable opposition from businesses that complained that the city was trampling on their right to sell a legal product.

Last night, the nation's two biggest drugstore chains, CVS and Walgreens, said they intend to comply with the regulations.

A CVS spokesman said in a written statement that while the company was disappointed, it was already developing its strategy for removing tobacco products and replacing them with other items.

Walgreen Co. spokesman Michael Polzin said his company feared that the tobacco ban would have consequences beyond the sales of cigarettes.

"Many times, a person who smokes will come in and buy a package of cigarettes and some other items," Polzin said in an interview, "so we lose not only the tobacco sale, but those other items they also pick up on the same shopping trip."

The most fervent opposition to the regulations emerged from the owners and customers of the 11 cigar bars and hookah lounges that either already operate in Boston or received permits to open before yesterday's action.

They argued that their product is distinct from cigarettes and that they had made business decisions based on a 2003 city regulation that banned smoking in restaurants and taverns but allowed cigar bars to remain in operation.

The financial argument resonated with members of the Public Health Commission, especially, they said, at a moment of economic crisis.

"We have to listen to people who made a significant financial investment in the city," said John Cradock, chief executive officer of the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center. "Even though there will continue to be cigar bars in Boston, it's a very small number. There won't be any more. I think that's the best we could do, frankly."

Myers criticized the city for allowing hookah bars to continue selling their goods.

"This is a case of protecting a small number of business owners and risking the health of a significant number of young people," he said.

The cigar bars flooded the Public Health Commission with postcards of opposition, and a contingent of owners met with Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Public Health Commission. But Ferrer said the mayor had applied no pressure to extend the grace period for the cigar bars. In separate interviews, commission members said they had not been contacted by the mayor or his aides.

The commission's action sent "a strong message that within 10 years, we won't have smoking bars here, with all likelihood," Ferrer said. "That is an unsafe industry and it's an unsafe work environment."

But the owner of one of the most prominent and tony cigar bars said he was not so sure that his business is doomed.

Brandon Salomon, an owner of Cigar Masters in the Back Bay, pointed to a provision that allows his business and others to appeal for a second 10-year grace period after a decade as evidence that the city does not want to shut him down.

"We have an understanding that nobody wants to put anyone out of business," Salomon said. "What we do is a niche market, and I believe that they understand that. What we represent are these works of art, as opposed to these mass-produced chemical sticks."

A five-day-a-week regular at a North End salon said the city had no right to infringe on his ability to smoke his favorite cigar, La Flor Dominicana DL 700. "It's just another step in the government taking control over personal choice," said J.J. Fadden, who frequents Stanza dei Sigari. "It's a situation where grown adults decide to do these things."

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.

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