San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

In Costa Rica cigar bars, puff away – for now

From the print edition

The “Control of Tobacco and its Harmful Effects on Health Bill,” signed into law by President Laura Chinchilla, has been in effect since March with the blessing of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV), but in Escazú you can still get a smoke.

It’s going to cost you, though: $2 for a one-day private membership at 9oN Escazú, an upscale new cigar and spirits bar on Avenida Escazú, southwest of San José. A month-long membership runs $25 and $250 lets you puff at will for a year.

“This project started about a year ago in August,” said 9oN Escazú General Manager Michael Arnswald. “The smoking ban wasn’t really in our plans, but we were able to make adjustments.”

Adjustments mean charging for memberships for entry into an exclusive, private smoking club with a selection of about 50 different cigars and a bar stocked with what Arnswald says is one of the best selections of single-malt scotch in Costa Rica.

“We’re trying to bring our customers an elegant lounge feel, where they can have a drink and relax with a cigar,” Arnswald said.

The anti-smoking law, which was upheld by the Sala IV against a March challenge to its constitutionality, prohibits smoking in places such as bars, restaurants, public buildings, casinos, bus stops and taxi stands. It also raised taxes on cigarettes by ₡20 ($0.04 cents) per cigarette and requires tobacco companies to print text and photo warnings about the dangers of smoking on at least 50 percent of cigarette boxes. Honduras, Guatemala and Panama have similar legislation, as do six South American countries (TT, March 23).

Arnswald said that making 9oN Escazú a private club sidesteps legislation, and the club has taken other steps as well.

“We have a high-powered air scrubbing system,” he said. “We don’t put any smoke out into the public sphere. Our smoke removal system is large enough for a 2,500 square-foot place, and here we have about 900 square feet.”

Because the anti-smoking law prohibits smoking in any place where food is prepared, the club does not serve food.

Additionally, the front of the club is clearly marked with warnings that minors and nonsmokers are prohibited from entering.

Inside, the setting is geared to an upscale clientele. iPads with automated ordering systems are mounted on each table with full cigar and drink menus. Members can scroll through the club’s cigar selections and access descriptions and tasting notes, such as: “Black pepper and coffee bean flavors transition into rich leather and a sweet cappuccino finish.”

The ambience is geared to attract not just foreign aficionados but the emerging Tico middle class with a taste for luxury products, said Arnswald. The market for cigars is developing in Costa Rica the way that wine markets grew here, Arnswald said.

9oN Escazú isn’t the only business in town trying to cultivate a demand for fine cigars. La Casa del Habano opened its doors in the western San José neighborhood of Rohrmoser late last year.

Luis Garcia, general manager at La Casa del Habano, said he feels confident shops like his and 9oN Escazú are in the right, but he admitted, things are a little uncertain at this point.

“The problem,” he said, “is that all of this is very new. There are no regulations yet and there’s no application of the law yet, and so everyone is waiting to see what’s going to happen in the future.”

One difference between the two businesses, Garcia said, is La Casa del Habano is set up more like a tobacco store while 9oN Escazú has the appearance of a bar. Garcia is the Costa Rica distributor for Habano cigars and counts 9oN Escazú as a customer. His store offers a credit program for regular customers who are allowed to enjoy cigars they’ve purchased in the store.

“I don’t believe there’s any problem [with 9oN Escazú’s arrangement],” Garcia said. “No one’s freedom is being impinged upon and nobody feels uncomfortable there, because the whole world knows when they go into 9 North that it’s a place for smokers.”

Health Vice Minister Sissy Castillo, however, said that according to the law, any workplace is a “prohibited site.”

Article 4, Section B of the law defines a workplace as any “place that utilizes one or more workers or volunteers.” 

Article 5, Section B declares any workplace “as defined by Article 4 of this law” to be “spaces 100 percent free from the exposure to tobacco smoke.”

“The problem isn’t so much for the smokers that are going to go in there,” Castillo said. “A place, even though it is a private site, becomes a workplace for the employees who are going to be there attending the clients at the bar. … From this perspective, they would be falling under non-compliance with the law.”

Castillo said the reglamentos, or rules that guide the law’s application, are still being worked out at the Health Ministry, and she expects the norms to go to a public hearing next week.

She doesn’t mince words about the intended effects of the law.

“We are convinced that this is going to benefit the health of nonsmokers as much as smokers,” Castillo said. “The idea is to discourage the consumption of tobacco.”

In the meantime, 9oN Escazú’s Arnswald said the bar is operating at about 50 to 60 percent capacity on a nightly basis, with 50/50 mix of Ticos and foreigners showing up for a puff and a tipple. He hopes to drive that up to 100 percent soon and to keep “educating customers on the nuances of smoking and how to enjoy a good cigar.”n

Comments are closed.