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Smoke-Filled Room 

Cutting deals — both backstage and on the convention floor — at a NATIONAL cigar convention in New Orleans

click to enlarge A display at the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers convention, which brought 5,000 visitors to New Orleans in August.
  • A display at the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers convention, which brought 5,000 visitors to New Orleans in August.

THIS IS A SMOKE-FREE FACILITY" is emblazoned on every door leading into Hall A of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, but step inside and you're transported back to a world where no one blinked at ashtrays on every table and a corona of blue haze in the air. It's the annual convention of the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR), and for five days in August the 5,000-strong group transformed the convention center and meeting rooms in the Hilton Riverside into the testosterone-filled world of Mad Men, where no smoking was replaced by no apologies.

  And it was all made possible — and legal ­— by the Louisiana Smoke-Free Air Act of 2007.

  The statewide legislation, which banned smoking in most public places except bars and casinos, contains a unique clause — specifically exempting "convention facilities during the time such facilities are being used for professional meetings and trade shows which are not open to the public that are produced or organized by tobacco businesses or convenience store associations." (The law also exempted Mardi Gras krewes.) Despite the convention center's own rules, which state, "Smoking is prohibited at all times in all areas of the MCC," the Smoke-Free Air Act held the loophole that allowed the conventioneers to puff away at will.

  "It's not as much about someone having to smoke as being able to try the product," explains Chris McCalla, IPCPR's genial legislative director. "It's like trying perfume. You have to spritz it and see how it smells. A coffee broker's convention would need to taste the coffee. We need smoking at our show.

  "Tobacco is a legal product," he adds, a bit defensively.

  Legal — and, for convention planners, lucrative. Mary Beth Romig of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) estimates the group's 2005 convention in New Orleans brought in $12 million to the local economy and says this year's take could be even higher. How important is a visit by a group this large in the tourism doldrums of August? "They're all important in the month of August," Romig says, "and the fact this group has already said they'll be back next year is fantastic."

  They'll be back in 2010 because Las Vegas, where IPCPR held five of its conventions between 1999 and 2008, ran afoul of the organization when the state passed the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act, which exempted casinos but not convention floors. IPCPR, which has a clause in its contract specifying its members be allowed to smoke, pulled out of its 2009 and 2010 commitments to the city, and New Orleans quickly stepped in to offer its services.

  It was a lucky strike for the CVB during a slow tourist season, and a rare victory for the IPCPR's members, who, as it turns out, feel besieged by taxes on one side and smoking bans on the other.

"The smell in this room is the smell of freedom!" declares a speaker during one of the IPCPR sessions. Sequestered in a meeting room on the third floor of the Hilton Riverside, IPCPR attendees are getting fired up while firing up an endless chain of stogies, pipes and cigarettes. (Not surprisingly, they eschew nonsmoking hotels as well.) Their presence can be smelled two floors below.

  The tables are set with ashtrays, the Hilton meeting room ventilation isn't exactly set up for smoking, and nearly all the attendees seem to have a cigar or a cigarette in their hands. The tone in the room is simultaneously libertarian, aggrieved and misunderstood. To many attendees — mostly small-business owners and the tobacco manufacturers eager to meet them — McCalla is one of their few conduits to power in a world conspiring to deprive them of their rights to both smoke and run their businesses, and several in the audience speak glowingly about what he's been able to accomplish for their industry: hiring lobbyists on the statewide and national levels, orchestrating email campaigns ("You have to get an email account," he tells some of the older folks in the room) and contacting lawmakers to reframe the argument. Steer it away from health concerns, he tells them; steer it toward small-business support. Most of all, stay calm, reasoned, and be ready to counter the arguments of the "anti's" — people who want no smoking, nowhere, no how.

  Several people bring up S-CHIP, the federal health insurance program for uninsured children, which began under the Clinton administration and was reauthorized by President Barack Obama in February. S-CHIP, which is largely funded by new tobacco taxes, received bipartisan support in Washington, D.C., but here it's a bad word, and the attendees aren't brooking any of the for-the-children arguments.

  A man in the back of the room makes the point: "It's not like we're selling cigars with pictures of Hello Kitty and SpongeBob on them!"

  "The anti's — they lie, they cheat; we've got to be above them," McCalla says. "We're a country of majority rules, but minority rights. The smoke shop has become the 21st century barbershop. It's Mayberry. It's a safe environment and we're not hurting anybody."

click to enlarge Sean Williams, a New Orleans native, is hoping to find success with his own cigar brand, El Primer Mundo.
  • Sean Williams, a New Orleans native, is hoping to find success with his own cigar brand, El Primer Mundo.

  Tell that to Carrie Griffin Broussard, one of the "anti's." As the program manager for policy and advocacy with the Louisiana Campaign for Tobacco-Free Living, she's well aware of the Louisiana Smoke-Free Air Act's exemption for groups like the IPCPR, and she's not happy. "Our focus is protection from secondhand smoke exposure. We would like to see all workers protected by all secondhand exposure. I don't think that anybody should have to take their life at risk to get a job."

  Broussard and her abolitionist stance is the epitome of everything Charlie Head can't stand. Head, a cigar lounge owner from Galveston, Texas, who's hanging out at the Cigar Rights of America booth in the convention hall, under a banner festooned with a picture of a Minuteman holding a cigar instead of a musket. Head owned a cigar lounge that was destroyed by Hurricane Ike in 2008. He's rebuilding, but Galveston just passed a clean-air act of its own that would forbid smoking even in a cigar lounge. "Does that make any sense?" he asks.

  It does to Broussard. "Certainly there are workers within that environment as well," she says.

  But what if a sole owner, like Head, wants to set his own rules in a space designed just for that purpose?

  "Even if someone owns a business and they're the only one working there, they're a worker," Broussard says cheerfully. "And we're committed to a 100 percent smoke-free Louisiana."

Obviously both sides can blow their own smoke. Broussard's goal of protecting cigar smokers from themselves is as dubious as McCalla's argument that "too much anything is bad for you! Too much water can kill you!" But the IPCPR's argument that they're not Big Tobacco, but small businesspeople ("Mom and Pop businesses," McCalla repeats, over and over), is, to some extent, true.

  New Orleans native Sean Williams was on the floor at the convention, trying to find buyers for his line of cigars, El Primer Mundo. A graduation of Walter L. Cohen High and former real estate agent, he went into cigarmaking in 2005 ("Everyone said I was batshit crazy") and has had success placing his line in shops "mostly along the Eastern seaboard."

  Eric Bay also was there. The former owner of the Uptown restaurant Nautical is now an importer, hawking his line of cigars and coffees, which are meant to be paired together. He got into cigars, he says, when he stopped drinking 10 years ago and missed having a relaxing after-work ritual. And Armando Ortiz, proprietor of the Crescent City Cigar Shop in the French Quarter, is full of praise for McCalla and the IPCPR. "They saved me after Katrina," he says. "I would've gone out of business, but Chris called and said, 'Armando, what do you need?' It got me through a few months."

  At a time when public sentiment is running strongly against smoking, the IPCPR members take their small victories where they get them. The original proposal for the S-CHIP funding included a possible $10-per-cigar tax (eventually whittled down to less than a dollar). And some municipalities are taking a second look at their smoking laws. Earlier this year, Long Beach, Calif. reversed itself and began allowing smoking within designated lounges like the one in Galveston. Locally, two bills in this year's Louisiana legislative session — Senate Bill 186 and House Bill 844, both of which would have banned smoking in bars — were defeated, in part due to IPCPR lobbying at both the grassroots and the official levels. Neither law would have affected convention groups such as the IPCPR.

The convention smoking laws can cut both ways, of course. In 2007, the American Heart Association (AHA), which had held conventions in New Orleans in the past, adopted a policy of only holding its future conventions in cities with smoke-free workplace laws — which would seem to exclude New Orleans, which still allows smoking in bars. In April, the association notified the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau that it had changed its mind about bringing its Scientific Sessions conference back to the city in 2012. The AHA membership is five times that of the IPCPR, with a commensurate economic impact.

  Though the AHA declines to discuss its decisions when it comes to convention planning, plans are still in the works for the group to come to New Orleans in 2016. Romig insists that New Orleans' lack of designation as a "smoke-free city" wasn't necessarily a factor in the AHA's decision, pointing out that the group is still holding its smaller International Stroke Conference here in 2012.

  As for the chances of the IPCPR returning to Louisiana in 2011, the state legislature may take up smoking restrictions again in the next session, though the focus will probably remain outlawing smoking in restaurants, not for convention groups.

  In any case, Las Vegas is ready to compete again. In June, the Nevada legislature passed Assembly Bill 309, a victims' rights bill that recognized text messaging as a form of stalking. Amended to the bill was a completely unrelated provision that would once again allow smoking in Nevada convention facilities, in language remarkably similar to that of the Louisiana Smoke-Free Air Act, the legislation that made it possible to light up in the Convention Center.

  McCalla says the event was a success and attendees had a good time. IPCPR will soon begin negotiating the location for its 2011 convention. "We love New Orleans," he says. "Great town."

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