- Associated Press - Monday, January 26, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Cigar aficionados argued in a legislative hearing Monday that a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling robbed cigar shops, and their patrons, of an exception they deserve.

Since 2009, Nebraska’s statewide smoking ban has excluded cigar bars, hotel guest rooms and tobacco-only retailers. But in August, after an Omaha billiards hall challenged the fairness of those exceptions, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the allowances for cigar bars and tobacco-only retailers were unconstitutional special legislation.

The state’s 11 active cigar bars have since been in flux, with a handful of lawyers still pushing continued in-bar smoking until the licenses run out in October. A bill by Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill aims to restore the status quo.

Larson’s measure would re-establish the exceptions for cigar bars. The bill includes careful language for the high court explaining why cigar bars do not interfere with the original intent of the Nebraska Clean Indoor Air Act to protect citizens from secondhand smoke.

At the hearing, supporters called cigar smoking more sophisticated than cigarette smoking, noting that most cigar smokers do so as a hobby, rather than an addiction. Cigar bars allow a place to share that hobby, and citizens who do so choose to put themselves in secondhand smoke situations, they said.

Anna Bellamy, who bartends at Safari Cigars and Lounge Omaha, told the committee she drives 60 miles from Lincoln to Omaha for the workplace environment and social connections at Safari.

“The smoke is insignificant to me,” Bellamy said. “I do choose to work there, and it doesn’t create a problem for me.”

Bradley Boyum of Omaha said cigar bars serve as gathering places for a variety of professionals including doctors, judges, lawyers, pilots and plumbers.

“If you’ve never been in a cigar shop, they’re really kind of amazing places,” Boyum said. “Something as small as a cigar can link such a wide group of people together.”

Glynn Loope, executive director of Cigar Rights of America, said cigars are at the low end of the health-risk continuum because of the lack of inhalation, addictive qualities and youth access.

But David Holmquist of the American Cancer Society, one of only two opponents at the hearing, said cigar culture may be different than smoking cigarettes but the dangers are real and similar. Holmquist said cigar smokers are four to 10 times more likely to die from cancers of the mouth, larynx and esophagus than non-smokers.

Hobert B. Rupe, executive director of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, testified that the commission in 2009 feared the exceptions would create dozens of new cigar bars, but that in the past six years the “mad rush” never occurred. Only one new cigar bar opened in the state and Rupe said there were no regulatory problems reported.

Former Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, who sponsored the original exceptions in 2009, called last year’s ruling “innovation in constitutional law.” Lautenbaugh said he believes Larson’s bill, with its “beefed-up intent language,” will address the concerns of the Nebraska Supreme Court.

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