New York smokers seek roll-your-own refuge

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Media captionThe high taxes on mass-produced cigarettes have prompted some smokers to roll their own

A new "roll-your-own" tobacco company in New York sells cigarettes for one-third of the normal price and claims its cigarettes are less harmful than those bought by the pack. Authorities say the stores are breaking the law and want them shut down.

New York is fast becoming a virtually smokeless city.

A citywide ban on smoking in public and heavy taxes at the cash register have discouraged smokers unwilling to pay between $11 and $15 (£7.00-£9.60) for a pack. Only 14% of New Yorkers now smoke, according to official statistics.

Loyal smokers, meanwhile, felt besieged, at least until May, when the first "roll-your-own" cigarette store opened.

Now, two Island Smokes stores in Manhattan and Staten Island sell loose tobacco and paper tubes to customers who use machines on site to roll their own cigarettes.

'Illegal' sales

The finished product looks virtually identical to a pre-packaged cigarette but costs only one-third of the price - $3.80 for a pack. That is in part because taxes on loose tobacco are far lower than on manufactured cigarettes.

Customers say the smokes taste better and are healthier than mass-market cigarettes, despite the discount.

"Here the tobacco is more like the tobacco I remember from the 70s, like real tobacco I smoked when I was younger," says Clarice Petillo, 51.

"The other cheap cigarettes you can find in the city are bootlegged, they are filled with nasty stuff."

Where smokers see a boon, city authorities see violations of numerous tobacco manufacturing, sales and tax regulations. They say the roll-your-own shops hinder the city's efforts to get people to quit smoking, and they have filed a federal lawsuit against Island Smokes in an effort to shut them down and collect the back taxes.

Image caption It takes seconds to roll a cigarette, using the rolling machine and tobacco from a tub

"No one would claim that Ikea is not selling furniture just because the clients have to assemble that," says Eric Proshansky, a lawyer for the city.

Island Smokes owner Pat Donnelly contends he is not violating the law, and says he is proud he sells only "organic" tobacco.

"In our tobacco you can't find the 70 chemicals that big tobacco companies add to their cigarettes," he says.

'Inherently dangerous'

His business model is so successful that authorities fear more "roll-your-own" stores will open across the city.

And public health researchers dispute Mr Donnelly's claim his cigarettes are less harmful than those found in mass-market packs.

"Inhaling smoke from any products, organic or not, may it be lettuce, spinach or tobacco, is inherently dangerous for your health," says Vaughan Rees, a Harvard University researcher who studies smoking.

"There are 400 toxic chemicals in pure tobacco smoke. The chemicals added by companies... enhance the flavour, but they are not responsible for the addiction, which is caused by nicotine, nor for the deadly health danger related to tobacco combustion."

Deanna Jannat-Khah, director of a stop-smoking programme at New York University, challenges the very notion of "organic" tobacco.

"The products of burning, the ash, the carbon dioxide and the carbon monoxide will be inhaled regardless of added chemicals being present or absent in the cigarette," she says.

'Deterrent' taxes

On this point even tobacco companies seem to agree.

"No tobacco products - including organic tobacco - are without risk," says Frank Lester, a spokesman for tobacco giant RJ Reynolds.

Image caption Roll-your-own evangelist Pat Donnelly does not smoke, but his wife does

"In direct contrast to products produced by 'roll-your-own' machines, all of our products' packaging display health warnings that clearly convey that belief."

Anti-smoking groups say that prohibitively high tobacco taxes are an effective deterrent and have proven successful in Australia and the UK.

The US government collects a $1.01 tax on every pack of cigarettes, and states and cities are allowed to add levies on top of that, from 23 cents a pack in South Carolina to $5.85 in New York City.

Island Smokes customers range from hipsters to grandmothers, and they say they are happy to bring home the discounted cigarettes.

It takes about 30 minutes to roll 200 cigarettes - equivalent to a carton. Many customers say they truly believe they are sparing their lungs by smoking the so-called "organic" tobacco.

"It's not healthy, but it's healthier," says Ms Petillo.

And some resent the city's effort to crack down on the shops.

"The city needs money," says a 29-year-old smoker named Gregg. In the end, he says, the smoker who wants a cigarette will go and find one somewhere.

"They know that this is an addiction, so they know that people are going to pay anyway."