Bar allows smoke, claims loophole

FARGO - More than two weeks after Fargo's stricter smoking ban took effect, cigar bar JT Cigarro is allowing patrons to light up in a gaming area that sells tobacco products.

FARGO - More than two weeks after Fargo's stricter smoking ban took effect, cigar bar JT Cigarro is allowing patrons to light up in a gaming area that sells tobacco products.

Bar owner Dana Coulter has apparently found a way to allow smoking in his business by separating the bar from his tobacco retail store.

Until July 1, Fargo followed a statewide smoking ban that prohibits smoking in public places and places of employment, with eight exemptions. Among the exemptions were tobacco retail stores.

City voters on June 10 passed a stricter smoking ban that prohibits smoking in three of the eight statewide exemptions - bars, truck stops and rental halls. The other five exemptions remain in Fargo, including retail tobacco stores, designated hotel rooms and private residences that are not operating as child care centers.

That means tobacco retail stores - such as the one at JT Cigarro - are exempt from the city ban, said City Attorney Erik Johnson.


Johnson said Tuesday that inquiries about JT Cigarro's business operations have been made with his office and other city officials. He said as long as JT Cigarro's alcohol and tobacco establishments are separate, the business is in compliance with the new ban.

"Clearly it would be a public workplace of employment, but it is an exemption under state law," he said of tobacco retail stores.

Fargo voters chose the stricter ban - Measure 2 - out of two listed on the June 10 ballot.

The approved measure stated: "Shall an initiated ordinance relating to prohibiting smoking in public indoor workplaces in the City of Fargo including all bars, truck stops and certain places of public assess rented for private functions, all as published in The Forum on the 26th day of May, 2008, be adopted?"

The other smoking measure, spearheaded by Fargo bar owner Randy Thorson, called for exempting bars prohibiting customers under 21, exempting designated areas of truck stops for professional truck drivers and their adult companions and exempting JT Cigarro.

Coulter was out of town Tuesday. He did not return a call seeking comment.

Coulter previously told The Forum he planned on moving to a new location from the bar's present site at 855 45th St. S. by Oct. 1. Fearing significant business losses because of the ban, Coulter said he was negotiating on three potential Fargo locations. It's unknown if those plans have changed.

The JT Cigarro bar area is separated by a door from the gaming area where tobacco product sales are allowed.


Johnson said Coulter contacted his office after voters passed the ban with 61 percent approval. He said Coulter raised the issue of retail tobacco stores not being prohibited under the new ban, which led to Coulter allowing smoking in the retail tobacco area.

He also said JT Cigarro would be in violation of city ordinance if patrons carry alcohol from the bar into the tobacco retail store area. That move would violate an alcohol liquor license that forbids patrons from removing alcoholic beverages from bars, he said.

Holly Scott, a school tobacco coordinator for Fargo Cass Public Health, said her office has also received inquiries and complaints about JT Cigarro since the July 1 ban went into effect.

She said discussions Monday with other health officials touched on the public feedback and the state law exempting tobacco retail stores from the state ban.

"That is not an exemption that we were happy to discover is there," Scott said Tuesday.

So far, bar owners have cooperated with the new ordinance, although questions have come up about interpretation of the ordinance, Scott said.

Questions have usually been resolved with a phone call, she said. "We're relying on good citizens and responsible business owners."

Johnson said he has not expressed an official opinion on JT Cigarro's operations. He said he will raise the issue at the city's Liquor Control Committee meeting at 1 p.m. today. He hopes the meeting will draw more input.


Scott also wants the issue to be resolved. "My hope is that it's something that can be cleared up."

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