LILYDALE, Minn. -- Private cigar clubs like the Lilydale Social Club have provided indoor havens for cigar lovers, despite smoking bans in Minnesota and across the country.
The clubs have been popping up from New York to California. A few are in the open like Lilydale's. Others operate in secret, like one in downtown St. Paul.
Minnesota's smoking ban doesn't have a provision allowing smoking at social functions, including clubs, said the state Department of Health's indoor air supervisor, Dale Dorschner. He hadn't heard of the local clubs, and the state hasn't challenged the legality of any of these locations.
But the attorney for the Lilydale Social Club says the smoking ban was created to protect employees from second hand smoke. Their club has no employees, and is not open to the public.
"This place is not circumventing anything," attorney Ryan Kaess said, while smoking an $8 Rocky Patel cigar at the club. "We fall outside the parameters. We don't have any employees, and the public cannot walk in. It literally is just a room where people walk in and smoke Cuban cigars
Kaess expects a fight from the state, but says the club's founder, Mike Petrich of Lake Elmo, Minn., "is on firm legal ground."
"I'm sure there are people at the Department of Health who would want to put us out of business," Kaess said. "It's not about health. Everyone who walks in here knows the risks."
Minnesota's ban on smoking in bars, restaurants, bingo halls and nearly all other public areas took effect in October. Several bars have fought the ban. Some have staged plays to take advantage of a loophole that allows theater performers to smoke on stage.
The Lilydale club opened in November. Kaess predicted clubs like it will become "a wave of the future" in the Twin Cities.
About 80 members pay $250 a year and get an electronic key to enter the club, which is connected to a cigar shop, run by Petrich's wife, Diana.
Last year, Petrich borrowed $60,000 to transform a former binoculars shop into the club. It features a view of the Mississippi River, two high-definition TVs, wireless Internet, plush carpeting, a poker table and a kitchen area with a stainless-steel refrigerator.
Four vents pump out the smoke, and cigarettes are not allowed.
"It interferes with the flavor of the cigar," Kaess said.
About 100 people go to the club every week. Members can bring guests, who must pay $5 and sign a waiver that says they know the risks of second hand cigar smoke.
"You're renting the space to come in and smoke your cigar," Kaess said. "The closest thing to this place would be a hotel."
Mike Maguire, spokesman for the American Cancer Society of Minnesota, says the clubs are merely an attempt to bypass smoking bans.
"There is nothing in the Freedom to Breathe Act that exempts private clubs," Maguire said. "If there is smoking going on that violates the Freedom to Breathe Act, we believe the law should be enforced."
Petrich also wants to allow his members to bring their own alcohol. Kaess on Monday presented his client's case to the Lilydale City Council, which approved an application for a bottle club permit on a 4-1 vote.
Kaess said he intends to mail the application to the state's Department of Public Safety.
"I don't know yet how that's going to work with the state," he said. "I'm confident, and we'll see what happens. But like smoking in here, it's really no different than guys hanging out in a garage with a six-pack and watching the game."