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RJ Reynolds Opens Haven for Smokers

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In an age of smoking bans, lighting up has become far more difficult for smokers. Tobacco giant RJ Reynolds has an alternative. In Chicago, it has opened what it calls the country's first cigarette lounge, offering fresh tobacco leaves and a tobacconist to roll cigarettes in any of nine flavors.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

There are fewer places for smokers to light up a cigarette these days, as more cities enact smoking bans. Tobacco giant RJ Reynolds, says it has an alternative. It opened what it calls the country's first cigarette smoking lounge in Chicago, just as the city's phased in ban on smoking gets underway. Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley.

CHERYL CORLEY: The print ads for RJ Reynolds new lounge make it clear, it is a haven for smokers. No standing outside, not huddling in doorways, come on in and smoke.

BRIAN STEBBINS: Welcome to the Marshall McGearty Tobacco Lounge. We're in Wicker Park here in Chicago. Let's go ahead in.

CORLEY: With a flourish, Brian Stebbins, senior marketing director at RJ Reynolds, opens the door and points out some of the niceties: vintage ashtrays, a fireplace, a plush 1950's era couch, board games, tables and chairs, the store's ventilation system.

STEBBINS: We've designed a system that exchanges the air every six minutes or 10 times per hour in the space.

CORLEY: The glass display case in front of the store showcases the company's Marshall McGearty's cigarettes, the namesake and brainchild of two executives from RJ Reynolds and the company's ad agency. The premium line comes in nine flavors and is sold only at the lounge.

STEBBINS: If you look at what's happened with wine and coffee and tea over the last, you know, few years up to 10 or 15 years ago, you went from having very few choices, you know, coffee used to be Folgers or Maxwell House. And now you have an infinite variety of the Kenya, the Kona, the Costa Rican, the Indonesian, and it goes on and on and on. Tobacco is no different.

You can do those same things with tobacco leaves from different regions, and that's what we're trying to do here at Marshall McGearty.

CORLEY: Cocktails, coffee and pastries are also sold at the lounge, but Marshall McGearty is exempt from Chicago's new smoking ban. It's billed as a retail tobacco shop, and most of its sales must come from its tobacco products.

Behind the counter is where the tobacco artisans, as the company calls them, convert loose tobacco into $8.00 packs of 20 cigarettes. Amanda Monfril(ph) sprinkles tobacco into a small brass and stainless steel hopper. After tapping and pulling some levers, she shoots the tobacco into pre-made paper tubes that have filters attached.

AMANDA MONFRIL: Yeah, and I'll do four, four plunges, filling five cigarettes at a time.

CORLEY: Monfril clips the ends and packages the cigarettes in a shiny box.

MONFRIL: This is the Earl. This is an oriental tobacco, infused with cardamom and peppercorn and cinnamon.

CORLEY: After she finishes, three friends come to place their orders, Carl Snarley(ph), Nicholas Motejack(ph) and Kristin Shoot(ph). All in their 20's, just started smoking a few years ago, they come to the lounge often. Snarley wants to try the Earl.

CARL SNARLEY: I've never tried it before, but if you look at his picture covered with jewels and fine silks, you have to go with a tea with a logo like that, you know.

NICHOLAS MOTEJACK: Today I will be enjoying the Empress. It's nice, delicate. It goes great with a blue moon. It has a light peach to it. It's so tasty.

KRISTIN SHOOTS: The Oriental Rose is pretty nice.

CORLEY: Kristin Shoots says she and her friends call the lounge, the speakeasy of their generation. At the rear of the shop, 25-year old Len Albright sits working on his laptop.

LEN ALBRIGHT: You pay for a cup of coffee, it's $2.00, and you get to use the internet for free. It helps. (laughter)

CORLEY: Albright says, in most circles, smoking isn't a classy social activity, so he thinks RJ Reynolds has created the lounge in an effort to reinvent what smoking is.

ALBRIGHT: So they're kind of trying to make this leap towards classing up smoking. I mean, it's interesting. I don't think it's going to work, but that won't stop me from coming and having a cup of coffee and enjoying the ambience.

CORLEY: The 1998 tobacco settlement restricts the way tobacco companies can advertise. Dr. Alan Blum, a physician and the head of the University of Alabama's Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society, says tobacco companies have traditionally found creative ways to overcome advertising obstacles. He's visited the Chicago smoking lounge and doesn't think it will last long.

ALAN BLUM: I think they try to find trendy, artsy areas where the crowd think it's in and doesn't want to support the corporate Starbucks kind of motif, when, in fact, that's all this is. It's not going to take long to catch on this is just another scam.

CORLEY: Blum is not the only one watching the experiment. So is Chicago Alderman Ed Smith, the force behind Chicago's smoking ban. During a city council meeting, Smith said the lounge can exist as long as it meets the requirements for an exemption.

ED S: We don't get all upset because this tobacco company is coming in with their means of keeping tobacco alive. But it's our responsibility to find a way to make sure that people continue to be healthy and can live without all of these problems that are created from cigarette smoke, and we're going to do that.

CORLEY: Brian Stebbins says RJ Reynolds has a message, as well.

STEBBINS: For adults who want to smoke and want to have a great place to smoke, we invite them to Marshall McGearty.

CORLEY: RJ Reynolds isn't saying just yet whether it plans more smoking lounges around the country.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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