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R.J. Reynolds mall lounge draws smokers, controversy

November 11, 1997

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (AP) _ Discreetly tucked away behind tinted windows, a smoker’s lounge in North Point Mall is filled with shoppers who want a quick fix without braving the chilly outside air.

The rest of the mall, like more than 80 percent of the malls in the United States, is smoke-free. Smokers can light up in its restaurants, but the lounge has a special distinction.

It is one of two nationwide sponsored by R.J. Reynolds _ and that has angered some who say the tobacco giant is targeting teens who like to hang out in the mall.

``Who are the only ones that really spend a lot of time leisurely in shopping malls? Kids,″ said Kathleen Scheg, legislative counsel for Action on Smoking and Health, an anti-smoking group based in Washington. ``It really shows how insincere the industry is in its claim that it doesn’t want to encourage young people to take up smoking.″

Opponents say the lounge, which opened in September, sends a message that cigarettes are so popular, smokers get their own special room.

``It’s ridiculous. They should have to go outside and smoke,″ said Claudia Mitchell, a mother of four who lives in this wealthy Atlanta suburb. ``It brings a negative into the mall.″

Lisa Shepherd, spokeswoman for North Point Mall, said mall managers didn’t even consider that the lounge would tempt teens to smoke. At Reynolds’ request, the lounge is open only to those 21 and older. The legal age for buying cigarettes in Georgia is 18.

Shepherd said the lounge has been largely well-received. She said she has received only a few letters from people who feel it is inappropriate.

The mall has been smoke-free since it opened in 1994. North Point officials quickly embraced the idea of a smoking lounge when Reynolds pitched it last year. They hope smokers will do more shopping if they don’t need to go outside for a cigarette.

Neither company would say how much Reynolds is paying for the 500-square-foot space that had never been occupied.

``Being smoke-free was driving them out the mall,″ Shepherd said. ``We’re able to put them in an enclosed space. It’s not interfering with the regular nonsmoking shopping public.″

And indeed, smokers seem to like the lounge, which provides comfortable seating as well as coffee, hot chocolate and soft drinks.

The air is largely free from stale smoke, compliments of a high-power ventilation system. The system also keeps the smoke smell from permeating the stores on either side.

``Before, I smoked outside in the rain,″ said Terry Russell, who works at the mall. ``Now I don’t have to worry about offending anyone. Before, when shoppers walked by, they’d have to go through the smoke.″

The North Point lounge is one of only two tobacco company-owned lounges in the nation _ the other Reynolds lounge is in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Reynolds has no other plans for other lounges. Atlanta and Chattanooga were chosen because the cities are test markets for new cigarettes, company spokesman Nat Walker said.

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