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Cigar Speakeasies

Banished from california bars, cigars are welcomed at a modern version of a prohibition-era fixture
From the Print Edition:
Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

The New Yorker pulls open the door and casts a suspicious glance across the room. He draws his travel humidor tight to his rib cage as he steps inside, his eyes narrowing to adjust to the darkness. This is enemy territory after all--a bar in San Francisco, a place where the earth can shake like a Martini being mixed, and--worse--where lawmakers have deemed it illegal to smoke in bars.  

The New Yorker sees a white sign to his right emblazoned with an all-too-familiar icon: a black cigarette impaled by a red, diagonal stripe. At the same moment, a familiar aroma fills his nostrils and brings a smile to his lips. To his left, a man is halfway through his Ashton. Emboldened, the New Yorker bellies up to the bar and opens his travel humidor. He selects a dark, box-pressed beauty, one he has longed to smoke for hours. A beautiful young bartender steps toward him, her dark eyes glistening. She sees the cigar in his hand and smirks. 

"You do know that it's illegal to smoke a cigar in a bar in California," she says. Before he can answer, she lays a cigar ashtray on the bar in front of him, then covers it with a pair of stainless-steel cigar scissors.  

In the days of Al Capone, Eliot Ness and Prohibition, speakeasies were havens for drinkers, serving booze under the nose of the law. A special knock or a crafty password would get you in, and alarm bells and secret exits might get you out in case of a raid.  

In today's speakeasy, many California bar owners flout the no-smoking law and offer smokers a barstool and a light rather than showing them the door. There are no hidden entrances, passwords or conks on the head from swinging nightsticks when the jig is up. But the havens are in jeopardy.  

Since January 1, 1998, all bars in California have been, legally speaking, smoke free. California Labor Code Section 6404.5 (also known as the California Smoke Free Workplace Act) prohibits smoking in enclosed workplaces. The law was designed to make office buildings and other work areas smoke free. Since waiters and bartenders are workers who operate inside enclosed spaces, bars are included in the law. The restriction has hurt the former smoker havens as well as the merchants who once supplied them.  

"The law killed us. Our sales dropped 20 percent the first month. I lost a partner," says the owner of one bar that was particularly well known as a cigar smoker's haunt. Sales have since stabilized, in large part because he still lets his patrons enjoy a cigar or cigarette. He estimates that 80 percent of his customers smoke.  

"I built a restaurant that serves cigars and I can't have one," he says. "Now that bothers me."  

California has been hit with a one-two combination of laws that hurt smokers. The year after the smoking ban in bars took effect, California voters approved (by the slimmest of margins) Proposition 10, which sent cigar taxes soaring. (See the related story on page 216). Both have hurt cigar retailers.  

"I think that no smoking in the bars hit me harder than the OTP [other tobacco product] tax," says Manjit K. Bain, co-owner of the Tinder Box smoke shop in Costa Mesa, California. "Every evening, I would get a rush of customers who would pick up their cigars and move to Morton's to smoke. It's hurt Morton's tremendously."  

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