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Erik Burgess, Published December 06 2012

As statewide ban goes into effect, patrons still smoking at JT Cigarro

FARGO – Despite a statewide ban that went into effect Thursday, there’s still smoking inside the JT Cigarro building.

Dana Coulter, owner of the cigar lounge and Skky Bar, told The Forum on Wednesday that he had discovered a “loophole” in the comprehensive smoking ban and was planning on letting customers continue to smoke inside his building.

Upon entering the atrium of JT Cigarro on 45th Street South, there are two doors: One leads to the bar and another has large, white letters on it, stating “Private Members Only.” An electronic keycard is needed to gain access to this room.

On Thursday night, two patrons stepped outside of the bar, cigarettes and an electronic key card in hand, and entered the room. Beyond the partially tinted glass door, clearly visible was a large room, dotted by the glow of a few lit cigarettes and the trails of smoke that follow each puff.

A customer, who wished to be unnamed, said he’s been smoking in there, a club called “Level,” for three years, but the room has changed slightly since the ban went into effect.

“It didn’t have a lock on the door yesterday,” the man said, adding that he’s not allowed to let anyone into Level who is not a member.

Whereas Fargo’s previous ordinance didn’t, the new smoking law explicitly defines retail tobacco shops as smoke-free zones. There are some exemptions to the ban though, one of them being “any area that is not commonly accessible to the public and which is part of an owner operated business having no employee other than the owner operator.”

Coulter said he believes Level falls into that category, and officials in charge of policing the ban won’t do anything about it until they receive a complaint, an assistant city attorney said Thursday.

“The city’s not going out looking for (infractions),” Jason Loos said. “If they get complaints, they’ll look into it.”

Adding that he was unaware if Coulter was letting his customers smoke indoors, Loos said only the sole proprietor is allowed to smoke in such an exemption.

Robyn Litke Sall, a tobacco prevention coordinator at Fargo Cass Public Health, the lead group in enforcing the ban, said they had not received any complaints about JT Cigarro as of Thursday afternoon.

Coulter previously told The Forum he was planning on complying with the law “the way they wrote it,” keeping JT Cigarro and Skky Bar smoke-free, but allowing patrons to smoke in Level via the law’s exemption for owner-operated businesses.

“He was looking to get around it,” Loos said. “I don’t know if he’s going to come up with something or not, but if he does, and we receive complaints, we’ll investigate it and take it from there.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518