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Cigarette stores provide a sanctuary for smokers

June 13, 1997

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ The sign on the door of Aggie Cavender’s store says it all: ``Smoking permitted. Enjoy!″

The windows of her shop _ The Cigarette Store _ are covered with posters for Marlboro, Kool and Camels. The walls are stacked high with cigarette cartons. Near the counter is a bin with a glistening heap of green packs of Newports.

The store is one of a growing number of shops that stock virtually nothing but tobacco products, aimed at the 24 percent of Americans who smoke. The prices are low. The stores are smoker-friendly.

``They feel much more at ease here, especially since there’s so much going on with the tobacco industry,″ said Ms. Cavender, who quit smoking a few years ago but still occasionally puffs on cigars. ``It’s like a little support store I guess.″

Low prices are the biggest draw. The store sells a carton of Marlboros for $11.15; a nearby supermarket sells the same carton for $13.75.

``I like the prices,″ said Aida Gregory as she waited in line at the store. ``My husband works for Philip Morris so we don’t go anywhere they’re anti-smoking.″

Stores like Ms. Cavender’s have popped up in the last few years in Richmond, a longtime center of the tobacco industry where Philip Morris operates the world’s largest cigarette plant. But the idea isn’t new.

The Cigarette Store Inc., a Modesto, Calif.-based chain of 25 stores, opened its first cigarette store 16 years ago.

``Price gets them in the door and selection and smoker friendliness keeps them,″ said Dave Pope, the company’s vice president. ``Otherwise, in grocery stores, the cigarettes are locked up and the bag boy has to get them and everyone knows you’re a smoker. In our store they know they’re not going to be judged.″

Most of the market is fragmented into small chains of five or six stores or single shops like Ms. Cavender’s. The exception is Benicia, Calif.-based Cigarettes Cheaper!, which owns 395 stores.

The company started in 1994 and is opening three to four new stores a week with hopes of 2,000 stores by 2000. The chain has spread as far east as Indiana and is taking aim at the East Coast. Their first beachhead will be in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Ned Roscoe, son of the company’s owner, estimated there were about 1,300 such stores around the country last year.

Mike Negron, manager of Cigarettes Unlimited, which has three stores in Richmond and Ashland, said the growth is spurred on by increasing pressure from anti-smokers and tobacco regulators.

``We figured there would be a day when it’s going to be regulated and the people who are going to be hurting are the grocery stores,″ he said.

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