Smoke shops proliferate in Pike
Out-of-state customers are flocking to Pike: Supporters welcome the revenue, while opponents say stores send wrong message to youth
Display cases at Smoker's Choice in Matamoras.
Kelley Edison, 15, left, and Shannon Downing, 16, pore over a map with pinheads that mark tobacco stores in their neighborhood.Residents say the number of stores have spiraled over the last four years. (Photo by Hema Easley)
Bongs for sale at Smoker's Choice in Matamoras.
Glass and ceramic pipes for sale at Smoker's Choice in Matamoras.
MATAMORAS — The profusion of tobacco stores in the borough makes the large Smoker's Choice almost innocuous. Located in a strip mall that also houses a pizza parlor and a Staples, the shop is so anodyne that from the outside it could pass for a drug store.
But the inside is captivating. Row upon row of bagged loose tobacco fill the wall and shelves. At the back, behind lit glass cases, are hookahs, bongs and pipes — dazzling in their myriad colors, shapes and sizes, from glistening ceramic to metal to glass. Also on offer are electronic cigarettes and e-juices, liquid nicotine not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and mixed with flavors like vanilla, cherry and menthol.
Nearby is Smoker's Paradise. Smaller than Smoker's Choice, the store sells cigarettes and loose tobacco for smoking and chewing. Flavors range from wild cherry, grape, apples and peach to citrus, spearmint and vanilla. And if you're in the market for e-cigarettes, cigarette rolling machines, vapor pens and e-juices, they have them too.
Eight stores sell tobacco products — and tobacco products only — in Matamoras, a town of 2,500 that covers 10 blocks. The seven-mile stretch between Milford and Matamoras contains approximately 30 tobacco retailers. Pike County, with a population of 57,000, has about 50 tobacco retailers.
“Everyone talks about it,” said Kelley Edison, 15, a freshman at Delaware Valley High School who is part of TATU, or Teens Against Tobacco Use. “Every time there's a new building, people say it must be a cigarette store.”
The stores are part of a resurgence in retailers selling tobacco or tobacco paraphernalia in the area. Never mind that fewer Americans now smoke cigarettes than they did a decade ago, and that some of the largest retailers, like CVS, are saying they won't sell cigarettes anymore.
In fact, the Center for Disease Control says more high school students acknowledge smoking marijuana than cigarettes — 23 percent to 18 percent.
It seems tobacco stores are turning the law of supply and demand on its head.
Location, low taxes a magnetLocal officials and residents say the area's unique location combined with low state taxes on cigarettes account for the spiraling growth of tobacco stores and their customers. The Pennsylvania towns share borders with New York and New Jersey, and are easily accessible through Interstate 84. Last year a Smokers Paradise III opened in Shohola, population of 2,000, a few feet from the bridge that connects it with New York State's Route 97. A pack of cigarettes in New York averages $14, which includes the state tax of $4.35 — and New York City adds another $1.60. By contrast, Pennsylvania imposes a tax of only $1.60 per pack, less also than in New Jersey, at $2.70, and Connecticut, at $3.40.
“At least two-thirds of the buyers come from outside Pennsylvania, from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey,” said David Clark, a Matamoras council member. “A carton sells here for $65. The same in New York sells for $110.”
The price difference is so attractive, he said, that three girls from Connecticut arrive in a taxi every other week and spend thousands on cigarettes. The low price more than makes up for the cost of the taxi, he surmises.
In fact, the business is so profitable, a tobacco megastore will be opening in Westfall, a neighboring town of 2,500 people.
“It's the Walmart of cigarette stores,” said Clark, whose mother is the mayor of the town. “When that opens, it's going to drastically change things.”
He shrugged off the health impact of smoking because, with most buyers from outside the area, he said it didn't affect his community.
“The state of Pennsylvania is reaping the benefit," said Clark. "They get the taxes but not the health cost. New York is by far the loser. Pennsylvania is the winner.”
Parents and teachers are worriedTeachers at Delaware Valley High School, teens and their parents said they were concerned about the number of cigarette stores in their neighborhood.
“I think it's horrible that it's so easy to get a hold of this stuff. I have one in front of my house,” said Robin Adelfio, a mother of a teenager who lamented it wasn't possible to live anywhere in the town and not have a tobacco store nearby.
That wasn't always the case. Long-time residents recall a time, only a decade ago, when only a handful of delis and gas stations sold cigarettes. It was only three to four years ago, when the Smoker's Choice opened, that the deluge started.
“They came in so fast, like wildfire, that I don't know now if the community can stop them,” said Mark Moglia, the Delaware Valley Central School police chief. “It's sad. What hurts our area is so many stores in this condensed area.”
School nurse Ellen Orben keeps a map of the area with pin heads to mark every location that a tobacco store has opened in the neighborhood. She counted about 27, but worried she had missed several more.
“Tobacco companies target young people," she said. "They put cigarettes where (previous stores) used to put candy. They are trying to replace those who died with young people who will be hooked for life.”
Shannon Downing, 16, of Milford, said teenagers lose sight of how bad tobacco is for their health because they see tobacco stores all around them.
“Kids think because there are so many of them, it's OK,” said Downing. “They become numb to it. They think of it as a bad habit, not something that affects your health.”
Teens spoke of young kids asking their older friends to buy cigarettes for them. DV police chief Moglia said that, in such a situation, it's difficult to persuade children to resist.
“It's hard to tell a kid not to smoke when he sees people around him smoking and all the smoke around,” he said. “It's like telling a kid in Vegas not to gamble. It tells the kids it's OK.”
Thomas Carr, director of national policy for the American Lung Association, said the sale of artisanal or flavored tobacco products was a subtle marketing ploy to make them seem benign. But the risks are similar to smoking cigarettes because consumers are still inhaling something into their lungs, he said.
While tobacco use was a concern, some residents were concerned about pipes, bongs and hookahs being sold at the stores, which they believe are meant for marijuana use.
“What else could they be used for other than tobacco?” said Bobby Ackerley, 17, of Matamoras. “It's mostly used for other things. Who uses water pipes for tobacco?”
Anthony Autore, 18, who quit smoking after eight years as part of a promise to his ailing grandfather, said he believed local stores sold paraphernalia.
“Just because they say what it's for doesn't mean that's what they are selling it for,” said Autore, a senior from Dingman. “I know many people who go into a smoke shop to buy a hookah or a bong and then go straight to a dealer to buy marijuana.”
Yes, but is it legal?Selling drug paraphernalia is illegal and can invite a fine of $5,000 and up to two years in prison. But proving that an item is paraphernalia is difficult because the same item can be used to smoke tobacco, which is legal.
As the law is written, there is a very high bar to determining illegal conduct.
The Department of Justice defines drug paraphernalia as any item used to ingest or inhale marijuana, cocaine, hashish or hashish oil, among other contraband. These include metal, wooden, glass, stone or ceramic pipes as well as miniature spoons, bongs, water pipes and other equipment.
But to prove that an item is actually drug paraphernalia, it must be accompanied by literature describing its use, oral or written instructions, or testimony of a witness on its illegal use.
“My problem with these stores is that they sell paraphernalia for drugs,” said Moglia, the school chief of police. “But that's not a crime. It's a crime if only it has marijuana in it.”
Stores are careful about keeping on the right side of the law. Signs on glass cases carrying pipes in Smoker's Choice clearly carried signs that read “Tobacco use only” and “Tobacco Accessories.” A clear note on the entrance door declared “No ID, No Entry, No Exceptions.”
At least two tobacco stores, both branches of Smoker's Paradise, do not to sell pipes, bongs and other paraphernalia. Jennifer Nicholas, manager of Smokers Paradise, said the owners, Abdul Rauf and Zafar Chaudhary, do not carry them because they believe people use them for purposes other than tobacco.
Some people believe that paraphernalia is being sold in anticipation of the legalization of marijuana. Twenty states nationwide and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana, either for medicinal or recreational purposes.
While Pennsylvania has not legalized pot, both Connecticut and New Jersey have, and New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo has indicated he will allow for limited medical marijuana in the state.
Officials welcome the tax revenueLast year Mayor Janet Clark of Matamoras invited criticism for partnering with Smoker's Paradise in giving out backpacks filled with school supplies to needy children. The event, which was covered by the press, was held in August in the store's parking lot, and employees helped the mayor give out the backpacks.
Some residents, including school nurse Orben, felt it sent a wrong message, as if the backpacks were a bribe to students given in the hope that they would have a positive association with smoking.
Clark strongly denied the suggestion, saying the owners were good men trying to give back to the community.
Her son, Councilmember Clark, said many of the tobacco stores replaced dilapidated and run-down and empty storefronts, and had spruced up the neighborhood.
“They all pay taxes — sales tax, income tax, property and school tax,” said Clark. “From an economic point of view, they bring in the money.”
He acknowledged the concern about children and smoking, but said the council had no legal recourse to prevent tobacco stores from coming to town.
“Cigarettes are not good for you, but that's more of a parental role rather than a town role in regulating,” he said, likening it to alcohol.
The marketplace itself would regulate the stores, he offered. With so many in such a small area, some were likely to be pushed out, he said, especially with the opening of the megastore in Westfall.
Asked if the council would take up the issue of the tobacco stores given the public's concern, Clark was candid.
“I don't think the borough council has any intention of regulating the stores,” he said.
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