V.I. public smoking restrictions may be slightly relaxed to allow a "cigar factory" to operate a smoking and possibly smoking and drinking lounge for adults only, if a bill approved in committee Tuesday becomes law.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Jean Forde would carve out a small, specialized additional exemption to restrictions on V.I. public smoking enacted in 2010 and put into effect in 2011. (See Related Links below)
Since 2011, no smoking has been allowed within 20 feet of local bars, restaurants and businesses, or anywhere indoor or outdoor service is being provided, unless it is done 20 feet away from any service waiting line.
Smoking is also prohibited on National Park beaches. Business owners must enforce the 20-foot ban and post no smoking signs or risk fines that start at $250 and increase to thousands of dollars for repeat offenses.
The current law allows smoking in private residences, unless they are used for child day care or hospice care. People may smoke in private clubs, private vehicles and retail tobacco outlets, so that a "cigar factory" that is also a retail tobacco outlet set up for adult smoking indoors may already be legal.
The bill appears to envision such establishments will sell alcohol, although it does not explicitly authorize it. It says that such a "factory" must employ cigar rollers and roll its own cigars; and that "not more than 60 percent" of the business’ revenue can come from "sales other than cigar and tobacco products, such as … liquor and other beverages."
St. Thomas cigar enthusiast Roger Minkoff said he approached Forde about the idea after visiting a cigar factory in New Orleans, where he enjoyed a fine cigar and glass of bourbon. He stressed the potential tourist trade and money to be earned from cigar "aficionados" with money to spend. And he said it could be a boon for V.I. agriculture by creating a tourist market for locally grown tobacco.
The bill says it eliminates an exemption to V.I. excise taxes for cigars. But Internal Revenue Bureau Director Marvin Pickering testified that there are two sections of V.I. law on cigar excise taxes that are in conflict, and IRB already does collect 20 percent excise tax as a result. But he said it was good that the bill would clarify V.I. law.
Cigar tax revenue has been increasing in recent years. According to Pickering, the IRB collected $27,233 for Fiscal Year 2013; $50,747 for FY14; and $63,095 for FY15. He said the bill would not generate additional revenue because it does not increase the tax rate.
Forde said amendments would be proposed at a later point to increase the cigar excise tax from 20 percent to 25 percent, and to require signage saying one must be 18 or older to be in the establishment.
Sen. Tregenza Roach said he was concerned that the bill would allow much of the "factory" revenue to come from selling cigarettes. He also said was concerned "why, from a free-market perspective, non-factory owners cannot establish a lounge."
"This legislation would restrict that, would it not?" Roach asked.
"Yes it would," Minkoff answered.
Voting to send the bill out of committee for further consideration were Sens. Marvin Blyden, Myron Jackson, Terrence "Positive" Nelson and Clifford Graham. Roach voted no. Sen. Kurt Vialet, who attended much of the hearing, left prior to the vote.
Editor’s Note: The photo caption for Roger Minkoff has been updated to correct Mr. Minkoff’s first name.