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Victory stogie

Without debate, Massachusetts House votes to override Menino deal to close Hub cigar bars

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / May 4, 2011

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Hank Szumiesz kicked back in a dimly lit corner of a subterranean North End cigar bar, thick smoke curling from his $27 Ashton VSG stogie filled with aged Dominican tobacco.

“What harm does it do?’’ said Szumiesz, a 53-year-old electrical contractor who was celebrating a birthday with three friends at the bar, Stanza dei Sigari. “You have a great time with the boys. It’s a nice atmosphere. It’s comfortable.’’

He and other cigar aficionados won a major victory last week, when the Massachusetts House, long a bastion of cigar-chomping power brokers, voted quietly and without debate to let Boston’s cigar bars remain open indefinitely, despite Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s order that they begin closing in 2018.

Menino had argued that cigar bars pose a threat because of the dire effects of tobacco smoke.

But Representative Aaron Michlewitz, a North End Democrat whose district includes two cigar bars, complained that thriving businesses should not be snuffed out. He tucked the measure into the state budget, overcoming a stiff lobbying campaign by the American Cancer Society and other antismoking groups.

“Cigar bars do provide an attraction,’’ said Michlewitz, who acknowledged enjoying the occasional stogie. “They’re part of the total package of coming to the North End. You have dinner and a drink, and sometimes that includes a cigar. That ambience has worked so well for the neighborhood, and we’d like to keep that.’’

Menino, however, said he has serious reservations about giving Boston’s three cigar bars and four hookah lounges a reprieve from his rule, adopted in 2008, that gave the parlors a decade to close. He said cigar bar owners had reluctantly agreed to the deadline.

“When I reach an agreement, I reach an agreement, and when they sign with me, I believe what they sign,’’ Menino said. “And now, all of a sudden, you want to change the rule, when you sign an agreement? I have some issues with that. It’s the health issue. We worked hard to get an agreement, and just to change that — I get concerned about that.’’

Governor Deval Patrick is also concerned. He vetoed a similar measure that Senator Anthony Petruccelli, an East Boston Democrat who also represents the North End, tucked into last year’s state budget. The governor said the measure would have prevented local officials from protecting the health of residents.

He has similar concerns about Michlewitz’s attempt to save the cigar bars this year.

“The Department of Public Health has expressed concerns about the impacts of this amendment on the ability of local boards of health to move forward with their own regulations, as well as its impact on the smoke-free workplace law and other public health considerations,’’ Patrick’s spokesman, Alex Goldstein, said in a statement.

Antismoking groups said they were unable to stop the bill in the overwhelmingly pro-cigar House and may not be able to stop it in the Senate. The groups worked with Michlewitz to make sure the measure affects only communities of more than 150,000 residents, meaning that every city and town except for Boston, Worcester, and Springfield would still be allowed to order their cigar bars to close.

“For us, it’s not ideal, but it was a fair compromise to ensure that almost every city and town maintains local control when it comes to the health of their residents,’’ said Marc Hymovitz, director of government relations at the New England division of the American Cancer Society. He pointed out that the measure would not affect Boston’s rule forbidding new cigar bars from opening.

Stanza dei Sigari, which opened 15 years ago and has burgundy leather banquettes, Sinatra on the sound system, and photos of Freud, Churchill, and other cigar lovers on the walls, draws a loyal clientele. Reid Soberman, who was puffing on a Padron 4000, said he comes four or five times a week to relax after work.

“If I want to come down here on my own and smoke a cigar, that’s my personal choice, and the state does not need to get involved in that in any way,’’ said Soberman, a 29-year-old economic consultant from Cambridge.

“Times are tough enough,’’ Szumiesz said. “Why put people out of business?’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.