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Roll-your-own cigarette shops move to form private smoking clubs

| Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012, 12:12 a.m.
Amanda Albert, 24, of Bethel Park and daughter of Roy Albert, owner of Tobacco Road smoke shop in Bethel Park, poses in front of a bin of loose tobacco at the store Monday, Dcember 24, 2012. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review

Owners of several tobacco shops that charged customers to use $35,000 cigarette-rolling machines until changes in federal law made the practice illegal are looking to establish private smoking clubs.

Like other fraternal organizations, the nonprofit smoking clubs would require members to pay dues, elect officers and meet monthly. Each would have a social calendar.

A possible perk of membership: use of a refrigerator-sized rolling machine, which can churn out the equivalent of a carton of cigarettes in about 10 minutes.

“We all tended to agree that there's a need for this now,” said Albert A. Torrence, a Beaver-based attorney who filed notices of incorporation with the Department of State on behalf of three tobacco shop owners who want to form clubs, which would be separate from their business.

The Internal Revenue Service must sign off on the clubs, which could take several months, Torrence said.

Congress in June passed a law that placed tobacco shop owners with rolling machines in the same class as cigarette manufacturers, such as Phillip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. The law requires the small shops to get manufacturing permits and imposes excise taxes on cigarettes made and sold, erasing any competitive advantage over traditional sellers of name-brand smokes.

Several of Western Pennsylvania's dozens of roll-your-own shops closed. Others hung on, selling loose tobacco and cigarette tubes.

Torrence said the clubs would seek permission from the state and federal governments to use the rolling machines. He does not think their use would violate the law because they would not be used to turn a profit.

Roy Albert, who owns Tobacco Road in Bethel Park, is applying to establish the South Pittsburgh Social Smoker's Club. He'd like to find a way to get some use out of his machines.

“I've got $85,000 (invested) in these machines,” Albert said, adding that business declined at his tobacco shop by 60 percent, and he reduced his employees from 10 to two after the law passed.

Albert predicted about 200 people might join his smoking club and said he would charge monthly dues of $40.

Also seeking approval to operate clubs:

• Rob and Sharon Kingerski, owners of the Roll With It tobacco shop in Ambridge, who want to form the Ambridge Freedom of Choice Smoker's Club;

• Josh Egal, owner of the Moon-based Smoke Stack, who would form the Smoker's Club of Moon Township.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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