At least one bar is trying a new tactic to bring its smoking customers out of the cold.
Billy's Long Bar converted one of its rooms into a cigar bar in late December so folks could smoke cigars and cigarettes indoors.
The question becomes whether new cigar bars are legal under the state's Dee Johnson Clean Indoor Air Act, which banned smoking in New Mexico businesses last year.
"It is clearly not allowed," says City Councilor Michael Cadigan. "We can't let businesses flaunt the law, because once the camel's nose is under the proverbial tent, it's going to be more difficult to enforce the law in the future."
"We don't want a situation where there is just endless buck passing when it comes to enforcement,"
City Councilor Michael Cadigan
Cadigan contends the limits on what can be considered a cigar bar make it illegal for establishments like Billy's Long Bar to open cigar lounges. He notes the last stand-alone cigar bar in Albuquerque, the Cigar Lounge, closed in 2007.
The act states any establishment that wants to be a cigar bar or have a cigar bar as part of its business must be able to prove to the state that at least 10 percent of its business came from the sale of cigars during 2007. Most importantly, Cadigan says, the act also forbids bars that cannot provide proof from ever having a cigar bar. If a business didn't have a successful cigar bar in 2007, it can never open one.
That provision could be changed or taken out depending on new cigar bar regulations that are being hammered out by the state Health Department. Within the next four months, the department will have a fresh set of guidelines for opening a legal cigar bar. "It's difficult to predict what those new regulations are going to say," says Chris Minnick, the department’s regional spokesperson.
Billy's Long Bar Business Manager Patrick Brown says he believes something will be worked out with the Health Department. "I'm confident we can make it legit," Brown says. "We're working with the state right now, and probably within the next two weeks, we should have things figured out." Brown wouldn't comment further until the issues with the state were resolved.
Another Albuquerque bar, Paul's Monterey Inn, already had its cigar bar certified by the city when Albuquerque passed an indoor smoking act of its own four years ago; but bars that have already received city certification now have to be certified by the state. “We had the city and the fire marshal certify us, and we never heard anything about the state until two days ago,” owner Eric Larson says. “My lawyer is looking into the situation now."
Assistant City Attorney Robert Kidd says any establishments wishing to be certified as a cigar bar in Albuquerque would need to provide proof that they’ve been certified by the state. The Health Department has not certified any establishment in Albuquerque as a cigar bar. Once the legality of city cigar bars is sorted out, the next step is enforcement.
Under the state's smoking ban, the city police, fire or sheriff's departments can enforce the smoking restrictions. But Cadigan says he hopes Mayor Martin Chavez, who did not return calls by deadline, will pick a specific agency to enforce the law. Businesses can be slapped with a $100 fine per infraction for illegally allowing smoking indoors.
"We don't want a situation where there is just endless buck passing when it comes to enforcement," Cadigan says. "They can all enforce it, but it's just a matter of which one will."