Save Oregon's smoke shops

By Jacob Grier of Portland, Oregon. Jacob describes himself as a "former DC think tanker turned freelance writer and bartender." Read his blog at

In 2009, Oregon's smoking ban eliminated smoking in nearly all Oregon businesses. The only exceptions are for cigar bars and smoke shops. The former must meet strict requirements, including possession of a liquor license and proof of tobacco sales from 2006; thus opening a new cigar bar in Oregon is practically impossible.

Entrepreneurs can, however, open new smoke shops, and in the wake of the smoking ban many of them have. They often cater to smokers who no longer have anywhere else to light up indoors. Smoke shops can't serve alcohol, but they can offer comfortable seating, non-alcoholic beverages, and other amenities. Some of them are as much social gathering spaces as they are retail shops.

For now, anyway. A bill currently in the legislature would put many of them out of business with the stroke of a pen. House Bill 2726 would drastically amend the rules for smoke shops, making the lounge aspect of these businesses illegal. The bill would require smoke shops to generate 75% of gross revenue from sales of tobacco or smoking implements intended for off-premise consumption, would forbid shops to sell, offer, or allow the consumption of food and drink of any kind, would allow a maximum seating capacity of four people, and would permit smoking only for the purpose of sampling to make retail purchase decisions.

Writing in the Oregonian, Representative Carolyn Tomei, who sponsors the bill, misleadingly pitches it as specifically targeting hookah lounges. Yet the language of the bill makes no distinction between hookah lounges and other smoke shops, so it would equally affect the many cigar shops that offer seating for their customers.

Even if the bill did only target hookah lounges, it would be unfair to shut them down. It's hard to imagine any health justification for allowing cigar bars (with smoke and liquor!) while banning hookah lounges; the proposal reeks of class bias against a hobby associated with the young and Middle Eastern.

Tomei and others are hyping hookah lounges as dens of iniquity that entice teens into smoking. '[W]hen you map the areas with the largest increase in teenage hookah use, they overlay exactly with the location of hookah lounges,' Tomei writes in the Oregonian. 'Exactly' is a bit of a stretch here. The study she refers to actually tracks use on a county-by-county basis, so the geographic areas included are fairly broad. Counties with hookah lounges are the same counties that have large cities or college campuses in them. While the presence of hookah lounges arguably has some impact on teen smoking, all one can really say about the study is that it found the unsurprising fact that both hookah lounges and teen hookah use are more popular in urban or suburban areas than in rural.

Hookah smoking is appealing to young people, and this is something some lounges use to their advantage in their marketing and atmosphere. But this doesn't mean they're targeting underage smokers; an ad designed to appeal to legal 18-year-olds will likely be attractive to younger teens as well. But the remedy to underage sales at hookah lounges is not to kill businesses but to strictly enforce the law. Underage drinking is a problem too, but we don't ban all bars on account of it. The state cracks down on repeat offenders while allowing the rest to continue responsibly serving consenting adults. The rules for tobacco should be no different.

Whatever the merits of the 2009 smoking ban, it has at least segregated smoking into a small number of businesses that non-smokers need never enter. The smoke shops and hookah lounges that have opened and invested in their businesses since then have done so in full compliance with the law. The legislature should not wipe out these investments with further creep of the state's already comprehensive regulations.

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      my mom started smoking around 15, long before the do-gooders began to butt in. the cigarettes eventually killed her, as they killed her parents. young people smoke for 1 reason: to be cool. right now, hanging at hookah bars is cool, and they might as well be crack houses. so what if tobacco is legal? the cynical use of "class bias" is an attempt to ignore the deadly result of smoking. as another do-gooder, Rep Sara Gelser put it: "Tobacco is the only product when used exactly as directed will kill you."

      you want to make money off tobacco? you have a high bar to clear to be allowed to do so. the law needs to treat cigar bars appropriately, but it does not have to be lenient.

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      On behalf of the drinking readers on this site, I hope that you never look into the eyes a dying alcoholic with cirrhosis of the liver, lest you call to shut down the saloons too.

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    the author of this post needs to learn to read legislation. current law, ORS 433.835, already requires that smoke shops must generate 75% of their income from tobacco. that does not change under this bill. nothing about cigar bars changes either.

    what does change is that smoke shops must register with the OR Health Authority & comply with rules set by the authority - rules which, one assumes, are yet to be written. smoke shops that are so registered must agree to surprise inspections by the Authority.

    if there are hookah bars that cater primarily to Middle Eastern clientele, serving as a cultural base, then it should be possible to work with Authority to devise rules that permit "cultural" smoking clubs. but hookah bars that exist to make money off dipwad hipsters; under what set of rules can we even think of allowing such a thing?

    and if the burdens on cigar shops opening are unrealistic (a point not proven by the author, simply asserted), then these should be addressed separately. but not under an overall set of rules aimed at curbing youth smoking (and the exploitation thereof).

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      "but hookah bars that exist to make money off dipwad hipsters; under what set of rules can we even think of allowing such a thing?"

      T.a., you're blowing smoke here (pun intended). First, how will we distinguish between hookah bars that "exist to make money off dipwad hipsters" and the other (presumably acceptable) kind? The decor? The location? The clientele? Are we going to make every hookah bar patron prove Middle Eastern ancestry?

      Second, why SHOULDN'T we allow such a thing? It's legal in this state for people 18 and over to purchase and use tobacco. If you want to make it illegal, fine. But there's no rational reason for making it illegal in one particular type of establishment and legal elsewhere.

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      T. A., my reading of the legislation is correct. The relevant change isn't the percentage of sales required, but rather the fact these sales must now be of tobacco intended for off-premise use.

      Second, I hope you're not serious about codifying into law provisions that allow hookah smoking for Middle Easterners but not for other consenting adults. How on earth would government become the arbiter of cultural authenticity? By sending bureaucrats with clipboards into hookah lounges to count the number of Middle Easterners?

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    I think it's important to remember that the workplace smoking ban is in place to protect the staff. Cancer rates among restaurant staff were (and are) much higher than the general population.

    Now, cigar bars were carved out of the ban. But, if I understand it correctly, cigar smokers simply produce much less smoke than do hookah smokers.

    I'd like to know - and I hope someone can enlighten here - what the rules are for air filtration in cigar and hookah bars. If we're going to allow certain facilities to smoke indoors, then we should at least minimize the damage to staff.

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      Kari, current law for cigar bars is that they must "Have a ventilation system certified by the Assistant to the State Fire Marshal for the jurisdiction in which the cigar bar is located as adequate to remove the cigar smoke in the cigar bar and vent the smoke from the cigar bar in a manner that prevents the smoke from entering any other establishment." To my knowledge smokeshops don't have this same ventilation requirement, however they must be standalone businesses such that the smoke will not flow into neighboring buildings.

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        Well, we should make sure that hookah bars and smokeshops are both ventilating rapidly AND making sure it doesn't flow into other buildings.

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      The American Lung Association in Oregon would like to address the air quality question that was raised.

      The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), states the following in their position statement on Environmental Tobacco Smoke: “At present, the only means of eliminating health risks associated with indoor exposure is to ban all smoking activity.”
      You can access the full document here:

      Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that ventilation does not effectively protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke. You can read more about their findings at:

      The Indoor Clean Air Act (also known as the Smokefree Workplace Law) has been a success--let's keep it strong!

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    I have worked in nightclubs as a musician and have known many clubowners and bartenders. From my conversations, I've learned most of the support for the smoking ban came from people who don't actually go to bars all that much, and certainly not from many employees, and definitely almost never from musicians who actually create music that people really want to get down to! I have no problem with bars CHOOSING to ban smoking, and in fact, the state could have easily given bars the option of paying for a "smokers' license" that would have allowed bars to choose, but instead they made a one-size-fits all policy that drove down lottery revenues and drove yet another stake into the live music scene. I'm so tired of neo-prohibitionist nanny-staters telling adults how to live their lives, and a bunch of Caucasian party-poopers attacking a Middle Eastern custom is the height of arrogance. But if one thing unites the right and the left in America, it's the desire to control people as much as possible, especially when they're having fun, and especially when they're not upper class and white. I've almost never met a working class person who supports these attacks on personal freedom, but it's amazing how many elitist "liberals" mirror their rich "conservative" opponents when it comes to this issue, as if it's the one kind of tyranny both can support.

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    "Musicians' Union"????

    Wow. Just wow.

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    Yes, I know, and I've told members of the union that I don't understand why they would support something that would hurt the club business. And there are plenty of rockers, indie types and others NOT represented by the union who had no say in the crafting of the law. The deeper point is why we must insist everyone conform to a law when there was a possibility for accommodating different points of view within the law. No worries, I've thrown in the towel on this particular fight, but I'd extend a plea to leave at least one space in America alone for adult smokers. So be it, the monochromatic crusaders generally win and the infidels lose, but if baby boomers keep attacking places where young people can indulge in a little vice from time to time and white folk keep attacking immigrant hangouts, they should not be surprised that they will grow to detest their overlords.

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      Rob, you do realize that there are non-smoking musicians, don't you?

      The previous state of affairs put their lives at risk, just as it put at risk the lives of all others who worked in smokey bars.

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        Uh, yeah, I realized that. I won't get into the long debate we'd need over the corrupt science that created the secondhand smoking hysteria _ like I said, the prohbitionists won, so be it _ but my essential point is there was plenty of room for consenting adults, including workers (of which I've been one) to allow for SOME, not ALL space for people to indulge in tobacco. It's a simple concept called compromise, but in our increasingly polarized society, people like me are being pushed to the margins by people who essentially want a world created in their own white, upper class vision of smokefree fern bars and light beer. Okay, in Portland, maybe dark beer as well ...

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          "I won't get into the long debate we'd need over the corrupt science that created the secondhand smoking hysteria _"

          Wow Rob. Really? You're going to go there? Tell me you actually believe that second hand smoking is harmless. Please.

          Speaking as a person who now goes out to bars, strip clubs and night clubs much more often than I ever did before, specifically because I don't come home smelling like an ash tray anymore, I for one am glad the ban went through.

          Lottery revenue went down? Boo-f*&%ing-hoo. My heart bleeds for the predatory bars who are losing a little bit of revenue because they can't take it away from gambling addicted fools.

          You cannot compromise with the smoke that some guy on the other side of the room is spewing into your air supply. So no there is no compromise on the issue of smoking indoors. You are endangering non-smokers lives when you allow smokers, who have no respect for other peoples lives, to smoke indoors with others.

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