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Two Louisville Metro Council members want to make it legal for people to operate cigar bars in the city.

Council Members Mark Fox (D-13) and Anthony Piagentini (R-19) are proposing an ordinance that would carve out an exemption for cigar bars in the city’s comprehensive indoor smoking ban. Louisville’s 2008 smoke-free ordinance bans indoor smoking at all establishments. It also requires smokers to stand at least 15 feet away from a building. 

Only the smoking of non-tobacco substances in existing hookah bars and e-cigarette shops were exempted.

At a recent Metro Council meeting, Piagentini sought to assuage the concerns of other council members that the cigar bar proposal would lead to smoking at bars and restaurants again. He said only businesses that generate 51% of their revenue from cigar products would be exempt from the smoking ban.

“I’ve visited establishments like this in other states [and] the only way for this to work is if you are already a cigar seller,” Piagentini said. “So somebody is going to come in and buy a box of cigars and they might be able to sit down and enjoy one before they leave, or test one out.”

Piagentini and other supporters of the proposed ordinance argue that legalizing cigar bars could be a boon for small businesses — and city tax revenue — after a challenging year of pandemic restrictions. 

But the proposed ordinance received pushback from public health officials at a recent Metro Council committee meeting. While the ordinance requires cigar bars to have “proper ventilation and maintain high air quality standards,” Chief Health Strategist Dr. Sarah Moyer said any added benefit that could provide is just an illusion.

“There is no ventilation system or amount of physical separation that can provide health protections,” Moyer said. “The only way to protect residents is through a truly comprehensive smoke-free law, like the one we have.”

Moyer said health inspectors would also not be able to enforce the “proper ventilation” requirements, and there is no way to limit smoke exposure to only the people who are okay with it.

“We already know that our inspectors will be afforded unequal workplace protections because they will have to visit these businesses to do their enforcement work, and that does not include all the other contractors and delivery people who won’t be able to choose if they have this exposure,” Moyer said.

After hearing from Moyer and other health officials, Metro Council’s Community Affairs, Housing, Health and Education Committee voted on the cigar bar ordinance earlier this week. The vote was split, which means the ordinance will go before the full Council on July 29 with a recommendation to disapprove. 

It’s unclear, however, if the 26-member body will agree with the committee. 

Supporters of the ordinance have also attended meetings to speak in favor of its passage. Council members heard earlier this week from J. Paul Tucker and his wife Sandy Tucker, who have owned the Oxmoor Smoke Shoppe for more than 40 years. 

Sandy said, as a premium cigar dealer, they get visits from out-of-state tourists who want to know where the best cigar bars are.

“Unfortunately we have to tell them that, because of the current regulations, we have nothing available for them,” she said. “This is a good proposal for Louisville and harms no one. It allows adults to be adults, and small businesses to grow.”

The Pegasus Institute, a conservative, Louisville-based think tank, also released a policy paper in May supporting an exemption to the local smoke-free law for cigar bars. Many of their arguments were later echoed by Piagentini and Fox, and incorporated into their proposed ordinance.

The Institute argues that not having cigar bars puts Louisville at a “distinct disadvantage both in the region and among similarly sized cities.” Their paper points to a study from IBIS World that found cigars are a $1 billion industry in the U.S. and employ about 5,000 people.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL.