Virgil Waggaman drives 20 minutes in search of the perfect smoke, a cigarette that tastes smoother and costs less than half of what he would pay in a store.
He buys his tobacco and pours it into a machine that resembles a large, wooden cabinet and waits. In eight minutes, the roll-your-own machine produces 200 cigarettes, or enough to fill a carton.
He pays $23.43 for them – the equivalent of $2.34 a pack. In a store, he would pay about $57, or $5.70 a pack, a difference based primarily on manufacturing costs and taxes.
“They’re way cheaper, and they’re better,” Waggaman said outside Medina Smokes, a two-year-old business that has three machines. “They’re basically renting you their machines to roll your cigarettes.”
As society pushes cigarette smoking to the margins, stores like Medina Smokes serve a growing number of people who have grown tired of tighter restrictions on smoking and higher taxes on cigarettes. Across the country, the businesses have created a small, but profitable niche in a market saturated by massive tobacco companies.
The development of the niche comes as the culture of smoking continues to evolve in the United States. The mountains of serious healthcare data related to smoking have driven anything about the practice somewhat underground. And with that pressure has come change: people who once lit up in the office 25 years ago must now, in some cases, walk off the property to smoke.
“We’re a minority,” Waggaman said of smokers.
And there is a push for greater restrictions.
Members of the U.S. House and Senate sponsored legislation this month that would force businesses such as Medina Smokes to be classified as tobacco manufacturers, a move that would hit the shops with higher taxes, according to interviews and published reports.
“This isn’t about taxes; it’s about market share,” said Phil Accordino, a co-owner of RYO Machine, a business in suburban Youngstown that makes the machines. “It’s not about anything but the majors trying to force the little guys out of business.”
Accordino said the tobacco shops with roll-your-own machines in them are similar to grocery stores that offer customers the chance to grind their own coffee or gas stations that offer hot dogs with various toppings.
“Does that make a gas station a manufacturer of hot dogs?” Accordino said. “It’s absurd.”
But Nancy Stann and others like her aren’t interested in a political fight.
On Tuesday afternoon, Stann, of Medina, went to Medina Smokes, chose her tobacco and filled the machine. The difference between the roll-your-own tobacco and the kind bought in stores can be felt in one’s hands: the tobacco sold at the businesses is pipe tobacco; it appears fresher than the tobacco in cigarette packs.
In minutes, the machine churned out a container of cigarettes, each weighing about 1.3 grams, where as most brand cigarettes weigh about 0.9 of a gram.
“It was painless,” Stann said. “In a matter of minutes, I just walk away.”
Waggaman, of Chippewa Lake, drives to Interstate 71 and Ohio 18, where the Medina shop sits.
“It’s worth it,” he said, even with high gas prices.
By rolling their own cigarettes, customers don’t have to pay taxes on the manufacturing of the cigarettes; but they do have to pay on the loose tobacco used to make the cigarettes.
Store employees said they have customers drive as far as Mansfield to buy tobacco and use the rolling machines. But the store and others like it have been busy. Customers have had to wait as long as a half hour or more to use a machine.
“This has gone on forever, people rolling their cigarettes,” said Al Ross, an owner of Medina Smokes. “The only thing that has changed is that we made the process easier.”