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Tobacco trade show participants light up in shadow of tougher law

Smoking isn't required at the George R. Brown Convention Center this week, but should someone choose to spark one, finding a light and an ashtray, not to mention a cigar, is easy.

With about 5,000 people sampling premium cigars and pipe tobacco at the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America convention through Wednesday, the center has turned into a smoker's paradise. Ashtrays welcomed attendees at the registration counter. All received free Zippo lighters with their tote bags, and fliers advertised "smokin' hot spots" — downtown bars and restaurants that are cigar-friendly.

Men and women strolled the 370,000-square-foot trade show, puffing on cigars and pipes, trading business cards and making deals.

It's a scene that soon will be history in most Houston restaurants and bars when the city's smoking ban is scheduled to take effect Sept. 1. A lawsuit has been filed seeking to overturn the ordinance, which could delay enforcement of it.

But in a move that highlights the importance of the convention business to the city's economy — especially downtown's vitality — the ban makes an exception for "enclosed meeting areas within convention centers, hotels, motels and other meeting facilities."

The law doesn't exempt the entire George R. Brown, so the smoking in the hallways and lobbies, which is happening this week, won't be allowed come September.

"As of Sept. 1, we will essentially be a nonsmoking facility," said Stephen Lewest, deputy director of the convention center.

Banning smoking in the convention center would have cost Houston the tobacco retailers' convention and the $6 million the group estimates its attendees will spend at hotels, restaurants, bars, retailers and other places out-of-towners go while they're here, said Chris McCalla, the group's legislative director.

"We won't be in the state of Florida again," he said, because of anti-smoking legislation that prevents smoking in convention centers, including in Orlando, which holds more conventions than any U.S. city besides Las Vegas.

The tobacco retailers' $108,000 contract for the convention center included a clause that would have allowed the group to break the deal had the city banned smoking in the convention center.

Banning smoking in bars and restaurants also stamps out dealers' ability to wine and dine customers over a smoke in the evening, too, McCalla and other convention-goers said. But that isn't a deal-breaker when it comes to picking a host city.

Smoking is a must when cigar makers meet retailers. Buyers need to sample the product before deciding what to stock in their smoke shops, McCalla said.

"If we can't smoke on the floor of the show, we don't have a trade show," said Ben Henderson, owner of Lone Star Tobacco, which is just outside the Houston city limits.

Increasing pressure
In the convention world, there is pressure on both sides of the smoking divide.

In May, the American Heart Association adopted a policy not to hold conferences and conventions in cities that do not have smoking bans that at a minimum prohibit smoking in workplaces, including restaurants, Heart Association spokesman Aaron Tallent said.

"There are more and more public health groups that are passing these types of policies," he said.

It's yet another example of money attempting to influence politics, said Frank Michel, spokesman for Mayor Bill White.

"It cuts both ways," he said. "We're not only balancing convention business. We're balancing the health and well-being of our community, too."

Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, a smoking ban proponent, said the city might lose some and gain others but doesn't expect revenue from conventions to drop because of the ban.

Tougher search
With more cities enacting smoking bans, it's getting harder for the tobacco retailers to find places to meet, McCalla said, though finding a big enough venue is the group's greatest challenge.

It is also working on a name change to better describe what its members do for a living.

"Retail tobacco dealers" might conjure images of those strip-mall discount cigarette shops, but this group is not about cigarettes. It is all about high-end cigars and pipe tobacco. Next week the organization will rename itself the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association, "to better define what we do," according to McCalla.

"This is not a cigarette show," he said. The pungent aromas in the convention center backed up his statement. The only cigarette makers at the show were premium brands such as American Spirit and Nat Sherman.

Source: Houston Chronicle