By HUNTER BISHOP
Tribune-Herald staff writer
A Hilo smoke shop believes it’s found a way around a new federal law that bans customers from rolling their own cigarettes on the shop’s premises.
Big Island Smokes, located in the Puainako Town Center, is one of a new breed of smoke shops that sells loose tobacco and cigarette “tubes” to customers, who either hand-roll their cigarettes or use machines to speed up the process. Smoke shops like these have proliferated on Hawaii Island over the past several years as the cost of commercially pre-rolled cigarettes in Hawaii approaches $10 for a pack of 20 cigarettes.
Steve Slater, who opened a more traditional tobacco store in Hilo in 1994, Kipuka Smoke Shop, and a second one in Kona in 2008, said the overall economy and high cigarette prices pointed smokers toward cheaper alternatives.
“Half our business is now in roll-your-own” tobacco and supplies, he said. “People can’t afford ready-made cigarettes.”
Rolling your own cigarettes can cut the cost of smoking by nearly 50 percent, with the only downside being the time it takes to roll them.
Most smoke shops sell relatively inexpensive machines that can produce the equivalent of a carton of cigarettes in a couple of hours for roll-your-own smokers, who primarily use them at home. Others, like Big Island Smokes, have installed more expensive, computerized in-store machines that can roll up a carton in minutes. For prolific smokers, the time saved can be significant. Some smokers also enjoy the fact that loose tobacco doesn’t have the variety of chemical additives that cigarette manufacturers add to their cigarettes, which some people believe to be harmful.
“People like to think they’re smoking more healthy,” Slater said.
But a tobacco industry-backed provision tucked into a federal transportation bill, passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in July, pulled the plug on the in-store rolling machines by declaring that machine-rolled cigarettes on the shop’s premises are the same as commercially manufactured cigarettes in the eyes of the law. That meant smoke shop owners needed a $5,000 manufacturers license to continue allowing customers to roll their own in the shop. The license also required shop owners to file a bond, pay an excise tax on the cigarettes, keep detailed records, attach a tobacco tax stamp and the Surgeon General’s warnings to packs of cigarettes, and comply with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s minimum cigarette package size.
That took the allure out of the in-shop machines.
David Yamada, owner of the Tobacco Shop on Kanoelehua Avenue at E. Lanikaula Street, was among most smoke shop owners who reluctantly removed the $30,000 machines to comply with the law.
“I sold mine at a loss,” he said.
The tobacco business is a “very competitive field” right now, Yamada said, who’s owned his shop since 2010.
“A lot more people are rolling, (but) not everyone’s playing by the rules,” he said.
Big Island Smokes co-owner Drew Wiessen said lawyers for his company, Vegas Bros., have OK’d a plan to allow smokers to roll their own on the premises by buying “stock” in the company for $20, making the user an “owner” of the company.
“Owners can use the machine in the store,” Wiessen said, and the cost of the shares is refundable at any time.
Wiessen spoke to the Tribune-Herald by telephone from Las Vegas where he and brothers Andrew and Robert own one smoke shop in the city and several others elsewhere in Nevada under the name Sin City Cigarette Factory.
Wiessen was reluctant to discuss the company’s smoke shop business, citing a pending lawsuit that challenges the federal law. He referred questions to Joe Baba, a Washington state smoke shop owner and former distributor of the machines. Baba said although the lawsuit challenging the federal law is a steep uphill fight, a coalition of smoke shop owners is proceeding with the challenge on the small chance they can prevail. Meanwhile, Baba said he believes “the law is enforceable.”
Wiessen, however, said his company’s lawyers advise him that, “Right now, what we’re doing is 100 percent legal.”
“Primarily, jurisdiction rests with the feds,” said Earl Hoke, head of the Tobacco Enforcement Unit in the state Attorney General’s office. Hoke said the feds are now dealing with “a number of creative ways” that smoke shop owners are using to get around the law. “It’s a lot more complicated in reality than it would appear in the abstract,” Hoke said.
Hoke emphasized that only the in-store rolling machines are subject to the federal law. Smoke shop owners are free to sell loose tobacco, cigarette supplies and even machines to adult smokers as long as their customers roll their smokes somewhere else.
The fast rolling machine was still in use by customers at Big Island Smokes in early November, said Abbott Hellsen, the clerk behind the counter. Wiessen said on Nov. 13 that he would be removing the rolling machine, about the size of a large office copy machine, from the shop’s front window.
Email Hunter Bishop at email@example.com.