Sometimes Justin Hegarty savors his cigars by himself, and sometimes he enjoys them in a cigar bar with friends.
“Either way, it’s relaxing,” said Hegarty, soon after an afternoon smoke at Churchill’s cigar lounge in Boston.
Hegarty may need to find a new city where he can wind down with his cherished stogies.
The Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) is scheduled to vote soon on expanded smoking restrictions that would be among the nation’s toughest. The proposal would ban cigar bars and hookah bars, which currently enjoy exemptions from Boston’s four-year-old workplace smoking ban. It would also eliminate sales of tobacco on pharmacies and college campuses.
The commission gave preliminary approval to the rules in September, and is scheduled for a final vote today.
Boston would be the largest city, by far, to outlaw smoking bars. Hegarty was baffled about what the city hoped to accomplish, and said it seemed almost unconstitutional.
“The framers would err on the side of freedom when it comes to issues like this,” Hegarty said. “People are free to enter [cigar bars] or not enter.”
Roger Swartz, director of the BPHC’s community initiatives bureau, said the dangers of tobacco are so great, significant steps are needed to protect public health.
“Regulations based on data are not done just to kind of hassle people,” he said. “For a product like tobacco … even if someone was doing it voluntarily, there is no safe exposure level.”
Right now, there are no state bans on smoking bars; 52 communities nationwide have bans that include private clubs and cigar bars, according to Americans for Nonsmokers Rights. Fort Wayne, Ind., is among the largest communities with such a ban, and smaller cities in Massachusetts such as Pittsfield and Lynn also have it.
But a ban in Boston could have “a ripple effect” around the country because of the size and influence of the city, said Chris McCalla, legislative director of the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association. The ban would not go into effect for five years.
The proposed ban on tobacco sales in pharmacies is not as unique in big cities; a similar ban went into effect in San Francisco in October, despite a pending court challenge.
Bill Rennie, vice president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which represents pharmacies, said prohibiting the sale of tobacco products there is unfair because nearby competing business could still sell them.
“It’s not eliminating the sale of tobacco by any means,” he said. “It’s just picking winners and losers in terms of who’s allowed to sell it and who isn’t.”
But Margaret LaCroix of the American Lung Association said a tobacco ban is common sense in pharmacies, which by nature sell health products, because “we know that [tobacco] kills.”
If the expanded ban passes, the tobacco sales bans on campuses and pharmacies would go into effect in 60 days. Since the smoking bars have five years to shut down, that could leave time for compromise.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino supports the expanded ban because of a commitment to stopping youth smoking, said spokesman Nick Martin. But Menino is open to compromise with the city’s six cigar bars because they’re neighborhood businesses and attract an older audience than the hookah bars, Martin said.
Swartz said the unexpected rise in license requests for the hookah bars was a major reason the city moved to lift the exemption for smoking bars. Just one hookah bar was licensed when the smoking ban went into effect in 2004, but now five hookah bars have permits.
The bars are popular near college campuses, and offer tobacco in various flavors, including watermelon and chocolate chip. People use a hookah pipe — common in Asia and Africa — to inhale smoke filtered through water.
Swartz said the hookah is a serious health hazard, and its appeal to young people is alarming.
“It’s becoming sort of trendy and you can sit around with a group of people and share and it has sort of a social quality to it,” he said, adding it’s “viewed as though you’re being exposed to other cultures in a way that is fun and exciting.”
Eric Kahn, president of the Sherlock Holmes Pipe Club of Boston, says people should be allowed to enjoy smoking. His club has met in various spots around the city over the years, including Cigar Masters cigar bar. Members discuss everything from politics to pipe carvers, and relish the taste of the tobacco. They shouldn’t feel like outcasts because the government doesn’t approve, he said.
They’ll smoke elsewhere if Boston bans the smoking bars, but it’s the wrong the thing to do, Kahn said.
“It adds to the image of the pariah. It adds to the image that smokers are evil and doing terrible things to the world,” Kahn said. “They like what they’re doing.”
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