Michael Bloomberg fired another shot in the city’s decade-long war on smoking today, announcing a lawsuit against a small chain of hole-in-the wall shops offering a pack of cigarettes for as little as $2.95.
“They are trying to get around the law by claiming they’re not in the business of selling cigarettes when they clearly are,” Mr. Bloomberg said in a statement. “Most businesses abide by the law, play by the rules and pay their taxes. We are not going to allow some businesses to skirt the law and we will ensure the playing field is level. They are cheating other businesses out of customers and attempting to illegally dilute one of our strongest smoking deterrents.”
The suit targets Island Smokes LLC, a Staten Island company with an outlet on the Lower East Side co-run by NYPD captain John Kimball. Island claims it simply “facilitates” buying cigarettes, rather than selling or making them, allowing the store to avoid taxes and statutes that see packaged smokes cost as much as $14.50 in some stores. The store’s ruse is to have customers roll their own using pipe tobacco – taxed at a lower rate than cigarette tobacco – and cigarette-stuffing machines that instantaneously provide them with a finished pack.
Himself a non-smoker, Mr. Kimball told the New Yorker he was motivated to open the shop last May after seeing “smokers get turned into lepers” by the Bloomberg administration’s crackdown. The ensuing flurry of business and publicity has encouraged Island to look into opening ten more franchises city-wide, which City Hall has been trying to prevent since sending them a cease-and-desist letter last month. Island’s owners don’t seem too concerned: they’re actively soliciting investors on their site, calling Island’s model “the best business opportunity in any economy, especially the current one.”
If the lawsuit doesn’t work, Mr. Bloomberg can fall back on health-and-safety concerns like the ones he used to evict Occupy Wall Street last week, since state law requires all cigarettes be certified as “fire-safe.” Island, for its part, thinks its smokes are a healthy alternative to store-bought straights – 70% of which, they say, contain as many as 599 chemical compounds.
Fourteen percent of New Yorkers smoke, the lowest percentage in the city’s history and an eight-point drop since Mr. Bloomberg banned lighting up in public places in 2002. That success aside, smoking-related diseases (did you know it’s bad for you?) are still the number one cause of premature death in the city, according to the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene.
The mayor’s shown no signs of letting up since then, most recently banning smoking in parks and on beaches. Mr. Bloomberg also touted a reason to feel confident going into this latest legal battle – a U.S. District Court judge upheld the city’s ban on smokeless flavored tobacco earlier this week.