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Cigar bar debate still smoulders

Two North End legislators consider fighting governor’s veto

By Vivian Yee
Globe Correspondent / July 13, 2011

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To some in Massachusetts, cigar bars help spread secondhand smoke and glorify what is nothing more than a health hazard.

To others, they’re a place to relax, boost the local economy, and exercise the right to smoke, an integral part of any city’s nighttime scene.

On Monday, Governor Deval Patrick vetoed a second attempt by legislators on Beacon Hill to preserve cigar bars in communities of more than 150,000 residents, including Boston, where the Boston Public Health Commission has ordered cigar bars to shut down by 2018.

A provision of the recently passed state budget would have prevented local health regulators from closing cigar bars and other tobacco-oriented establishments in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield that opened before Jan. 1, 2011. Though the amendment garnered support in both the Senate and the House, Patrick opted to keep public health authority in local hands for a second consecutive year.

“I am vetoing this section because it prevents local officials from protecting the public health of their citizens,’’ Patrick wrote in his veto letter.

But cigar bar supporters such as Representative Aaron Michlewitz and Senator Anthony Petruccelli, both North End Democrats whose districts include two of Boston’s three remaining cigar bars and who sponsored the budget amendment, say Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Public Health Commission officials are overstepping their bounds with their plan to close Boston’s three cigar bars. The rule was adopted in 2008 and extends to the city’s four hookah bars.

They say appointed officials, such as those who serve on local public health agencies, should not legislate local business.

“The great thing about this country is that you can choose where you go and what you do and how you live your life,’’ said Brandon Salomon, the owner of Cigar Masters on Boylston Street. “If they do this, they should eliminate cars and McDonald’s and all sorts of other things they say are bad for you.’’

For tobacco control advocates and public health regulators, however, the right of bar employees to avoid inhaling secondhand smoke is at stake.

Smoking regulation in Massachusetts has historically targeted secondhand smoke in the workplace. The state’s 2004 Smoke-free Workplace Law, which prohibited smoking in regular bars and restaurants, was designed to protect employees from secondhand smoke.

“Anybody working in a bar of any kind shouldn’t have to breathe in secondhand smoke in order to make a living,’’ said Michael Siegel, a tobacco control specialist at Boston University School of Public Health.

Yet cigar bars were exempted from the 2004 law because they are expressly designed for smoking, not eating or drinking.

Partly because most cigar smokers do not inhale, they are less likely to contract lung cancer, heart disease, and lung disease than cigarette smokers, though they are equally susceptible to oral and esophageal cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute. And cigar smoke has more tar, carcinogens, and toxins than cigarette smoke.

While customers might patronize restaurants to eat and drink, those who enter and work in cigar bars “know what they’re getting into,’’ Michlewitz said. To operate, cigar bars are required to make at least 60 percent of their revenue from tobacco sales.

Patrons can choose to smoke, but employees, who may have only taken a cigar bar job because they had no other options, should not be subjected to secondhand smoke, said Marc Hymovitz, director of government relations at the New England division of the American Cancer Society. Cigar smoke is as or more dangerous than cigarette smoke, he said.

“It comes down to we shouldn’t make people choose between their health and a job,’’ said Hymovitz, adding that state governments should not be able to preemptively set local health standards. “This was not the Worcester City Council saying, hey, we want to allow cigar bars. This was the state saying you have to allow cigar bars, whether you want to or not.’’

For now, Patrick and local authorities agree. But both sides say Boston cigar bars will remain a point of contention, perhaps until their expiration date in 2018.

For one thing, they serve a strong local interest. Michlewitz and Petruccelli, who both acknowledge enjoying an occasional cigar, believe cigar bars are an integral part of North End life, places where people can go for a relaxing smoke after dinner on Hanover Street.

And eliminating popular businesses means losing valuable revenue at a time when the city and state can ill afford it, Michlewitz said.

“Despite what you might think about smoking a cigar, I think they lend to the fabric of the environment, the fabric of the experience of people going out and dining in the North End,’’ Petruccelli said.

Petruccelli said it was too early to tell whether he and Michlewitz would try to drum up support for a veto override.

Vivian Yee can be reached at vyee@globe.com.