Cigar bar bill heats up at Capitol

By Alexandra KautzmanNDNAEF

BISMARCK – Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, said there is a potential market for cigars that is being held back by the North Dakota smoke-free law.

Under current state law, smoking is prohibited in places of employment and public spaces. If passed, the bill would allow cigar smoking in certified bars or cigar lounges.

HB 1152 passed in the House by three votes and is now making its way to the Senate floor. 

Ruby said it is hard to predict how popular cigar lounges will be but suggests that they are more likely to pop up in larger cities.

According to the North Dakota Department of Health’s 2019 Tobacco Surveillance Data, 4.3% of adults in North Dakota are active cigar smokers. 

“I believe there is definitely a solid customer base for them,” Ruby said. “Obviously it’s up to the business owners to decide if they want to invest in that business model and fill that niche. I think there are some that would like to.”

The bill faces opposition from groups like the Bismarck Tobacco Free Coalition, which is dedicated to promoting a tobacco-free environment and eliminating exposure to secondhand smoke.

Marie Jensen, a nurse and tobacco treatment specialist, is a board member of the coalition. She said one of their biggest concerns is how this bill could chip away at the state’s smoke-free law.

“From an outside perspective, this might not look like a big deal for most people but when we get down to it, it creates a significant-sized loophole in our North Dakota smoke-free law,” Jensen said. “What happens when patrons of this cigar bar decide to smoke traditional cigarettes or electronic cigarettes? Who is going to enforce the law?”

Currently, the bill would only permit the smoking of cigars purchased at the establishment. Any other tobacco product would not be permitted.

Since the bill is specifically tackling cigar-smoking, Ruby hopes that the bill would be less problematic for the opposition. He said there is a certain culture around cigars that separates them from other tobacco products. 

“Cigars are a little different, you don’t see people so addicted to cigars that they stand out in the freezing cold to smoke them like you do with cigarettes,” Ruby said. “Generally, it is something people do when they’re at the lake or on the golf course. It’s something that is not quite the same usage as other tobacco products.”

While cigars are used more recreationally, Sanford Pediatrician Vanessa Nelson said when it comes to nicotine content, cigars can be as dangerous as cigarettes. 

“Cigars actually can have significantly more nicotine than cigarettes do, which is the main addictive and cancer-causing agent,” Nelson said. 

With the bill requiring lounges to have a humidor and ventilation system, Ruby said he is hopeful that the bill will have good support and do well on the Senate floor.

However, those opposing the bill say ventilation alone is not enough since air cleaning systems cannot remove the smaller particles found in secondhand smoke. 

“That’s an opinion that comes from the U.S. Surgeon General and the World Health Organization,” Nelson said. “They’ve all very much taken a stance that ventilation doesn’t protect people from secondhand smoke.”

Ruby said the bill is not a slippery slope and that he has no intention of permitting more smoking in the future. Since it is a legal product, he said it should be up to individuals to decide whether they want to take that risk. 

“Nobody is denying that cigars are a risk just like any tobacco product, but so is alcohol and fatty foods,” Ruby said. “Our risks are numerous and people have a right to decide which ones they want to accept and be involved with. I think we’ve addressed all of the concerns that most people would have other than that they just don’t want people smoking anything. We might just have to agree to disagree on that point.”

Jensen said the coalition will continue to oppose the bill to protect the public from the dangers of secondhand smoke exposure.

“I think it’s extremely important that people contact their senators if they feel passionately about this and ask them to uphold our current smoke-free law,” Jensen said.