Got a light?

Sam Massri

Photo By Larry Dalton

It’s not often that you find a proprietor of a smoke shop who doesn’t smoke, but that’s the case with Sam Massri, general manager of the Capitol Cigarette & Cigar Store at 2007 J St. in Midtown. Ask this Syrian-born immigrant to tell you the difference between a cheap cigar and an expensive one and he shrugs, as if to say, “How should I know?” Massri has never smoked—cigarettes or cigars—and doesn’t drink. But while he doesn’t partake of his own wares, he’s not about foisting his beliefs on others. “To each his own,” is his philosophy. But ask him about Big Tobacco …

National surveys say that smoking has decreased, but you say the opposite. Why?

How do you think the big tobacco companies are paying for all those lawsuits? They pass those costs down to smokers. If more people weren’t smoking, they couldn’t afford to pay.

To hear you describe it, the relationship between retailers and tobacco representatives is something akin to blackmail. Can you explain what you mean?

It’s a monopoly; they try to control you. If you don’t agree to their terms, if you don’t place their products how and where they want you to in your store, then they don’t give you a discount. That can hurt you because if you don’t agree—let’s say to have 55 percent of the signs in your store [advertise] their major brand—but a competitor does, then he gets to give his customers a discount and you don’t.

How does that make you feel?

If I’m a [store] owner, it’s like I don’t own my own store; I essentially work for the big tobacco companies—understand? You’ll find others who say the same thing. You look at Coke and Pepsi. They’re in competition, but you see, [the cases] sit right next to each other. They don’t say, “You must put my cooler there.” With everyone, except tobacco companies, you buy their products and if you’re a good businessman, you’ll make a profit.

What tobacco company is the most heavy-handed in terms of trying to dictate product placement?

Who’s the biggest? Phillip Morris, of course.

You’ve got some pretty nifty smoking-related specialty items in here. A cigarette lighter that doubles as a laser pointer, 1940s-style filters, premium pipes and pipe tobacco. You’ve also stocked Asian pottery, lamps and clocks. This doesn’t seem to be your average smoke shop.

I don’t want junk in here; nothing is plastic. Even though I don’t smoke, I try to give my customers more of a reason to come in here than just to buy cigarettes. I wanted gifts for both smokers and non-smokers.

Is it true that you’re considering selling some form of the [nicotine] patch?

Yes, I’m trying to find somewhere to buy them right now.

Isn’t that counterproductive to your business?

[Shrugs] Look, if a customer of mine comes in every day and buys cigarettes and then he comes in one day and says he wants to quit, I’d like to be able to say, “OK, try this.” You’re still serving the customer.

I get the feeling that you’re committed to making a success of your business, but not so committed in terms of what you sell.

Hey, if I could just sell ice cream and it would be profitable, I’d do it. In fact, it probably would be more profitable. I mean, for every $50 I make on cigarettes, the government makes another $50 off the taxes. They’re basically your partner, you know? Anyway, I did a survey of the area and found that people wanted a smoke shop here, so I’m here. Someday, maybe, I’ll do ice cream.

Do cigarettes kill people?

Of course. Says so right on the package. But, it’s your choice.