Tobacco Lounge Blows Smoke in The Face of Chicago's New Ban

At left, server Sivie Suckerman lets patron Ryan Fitgerald smell a sample of tobacco. At right, Brandi Vinson and Nathan Beaudreau play Scrabble at Marshall McGearty, a tobacco store and lounge in Chicago.
At left, server Sivie Suckerman lets patron Ryan Fitgerald smell a sample of tobacco. At right, Brandi Vinson and Nathan Beaudreau play Scrabble at Marshall McGearty, a tobacco store and lounge in Chicago. (Photos By Michael Walker -- Chicago Tribune)
By Kari Lydersen
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 20, 2006

CHICAGO -- Glasses clink, friends chat in plush chairs and a fire crackles in a stone hearth at Marshall McGearty Tobacco Artisans, a "tobacco lounge" that has opened in Chicago's trendy Wicker Park neighborhood.

It appears every bit the bar or coffeehouse. But appearances can be deceiving: Marshall McGearty is technically a tobacco retail shop with at least 65 percent of its sales in tobacco.

And that means it is exempt from Chicago's new ban on smoking in bars, restaurants and other public places.

Many patrons on a recent evening were enjoying the lush atmosphere and freedom, they said, from dirty looks from nonsmokers.

But critics say the parent company of the lounge, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., is taking advantage of a loophole in the city's anti-smoking ordinance.

"It's just another example of tobacco companies skirting the law," said Kevin Tynan, marketing director for the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago.

Last month, city Alderman Edward M. Burke introduced an ordinance to close the loophole in the smoking ban, stating that venues that serve food and drink cannot be classified as tobacco retail stores.

Burke's ordinance charges that "tobacco lounges have attempted to circumvent the power and purpose" of the smoking ban, which currently affects restaurants, music venues and other public places; bars and taverns have until 2008 to comply.

Though Marshall McGearty opened the same week in January that the Chicago City Council passed the anti-smoking ordinance, R.J. Reynolds said the timing is pure coincidence.

"This has nothing to do with the smoking ban," said RJR Senior Marketing Director Brian Stebbins, noting that the company opposes the smoking ban.

He said the lounge is solely intended to promote the company's new high-market Marshall McGearty brand of hand-rolled, small batch cigarettes with tobacco from Zimbabwe, Brazil and North Carolina. Stebbins noted that upscale cigar stores frequently have a few chairs and a television, and offer beverages such as Scotch or coffee.

The cigarettes at Marshall McGearty, with names such as Aegeans, Muse and the Earl, are displayed in ornate boxes with descriptions that sound more like fine wines. Oriental Rose promises "smoke that is creamy, sweet and delicate, highlighted by floral notes."

Stebbins said the lounge is a first for R.J. Reynolds and the first of its kind in the country. A spokesperson for Philip Morris USA said the company has no such outlets. Both declined to say whether they anticipate more tobacco lounges in the future. But judging from the number of smoking bans around the country, it is possible companies will see the lounges as a way to promote their brands while providing a hangout for smokers otherwise denied by bans.

"We certainly expect them to try to put these in other cities with bans," said Annie Tegen, program manager for the group Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights. "This is just another slimy trick by Big Tobacco to circumvent the system. An $8 pack of cigarettes still exudes the same toxins as a $4 pack. For the people of Chicago, this is an equal opportunity killer."

Sitting in the lounge, Clay Beardshear and Clay Achee said they had traveled along the West Coast for several months recently and had a hard time finding a place to have a cigarette with their beer or coffee, because most of the cities they visited had smoking bans.

When they arrived in Chicago and heard about Marshall McGearty, they made a beeline for it.

"This place will be booming," once the Chicago ordinance goes into full effect, predicted Achee as they played Scrabble and smoked.

A group of young women who meet at the lounge every Tuesday evening said they are tired of getting heat from nonsmokers and are happy to have a place to relax among their own.

"Just last night someone was saying I was blowing smoke in their face all night, though I wasn't aware of it," said Justine Hanchar, 28, a medical receptionist. "Anywhere you go, you get those vibes."

Sarah Nawrocki, 28, predicted the group will be there "every night" once the smoking ban goes into full effect.

Shannon Moore, a 24-year-old musician who said she enjoys the ambience created by smoke in the piano bars where she plays, said smoking has become "like an underground thing" because of bans and anti-smoking sentiment. "This is like a haven for us," she said.

There are about 6,000 municipalities nationwide with some type of smoke-free ordinance, and smoking is banned in all bars in the states of California, Connecticut, Washington, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Tegen and other anti-smoking advocates said they think tobacco lounges ultimately will be unsuccessful in the face of growing opposition to smoking.

"I'd expect this business model to flop," Tegen said. "People in Chicago are excited about the smoke-free law. And many smokers I know in Chicago don't mind stepping outside for five minutes to smoke. I don't see them as a trend that will continue."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company