(T-G Photo by David Melson)
"This is how I put food on the table for my daughter," said Nicki Fulton, operator -- and now, sole employee -- of U-Roll-Em on North Main Street.
"It's shut down my machines," Fulton said. "I've had to let go all my employees. I don't produce enough revenue to stay in business. It's taken a serious toll."
U-Roll-Em is one of many stores across the country which bought customer-operated machines in which loose tobacco is poured and rolled into "tubes," also purchased by the customer. The finished products are referred to as "smokes," rather than cigarettes, by store operators.
"It was 90 percent of our business," Fulton said.
"It's a federal case, They included it with the highway bill. It declared us as manufacturers."
The move by Congress means smoke shops must obtain cigarette manufacturing licenses, pay federal and state cigarette taxes and follow the same federal regulations as large manufacturers -- or shut down the machines.
Both of U-Roll-Em's machines now sit idle. A few customers still purchase tobacco and roll their own cigarettes by hand, Fulton said.
"It's the last thing that Mike would have wanted to happen," Fulton said, referring to the store's founder, Mike Lopiccolo, who died earlier this year. "He was more to me than a boss. He was like a father to me and began teaching me how to do everything right from the start."
Lopiccolo had expressed concern about the bill's possible passage in a Times-Gazette story last year.
"I've never seen so many customers in one town complain about something," Fulton said. "Most have said they would stop smoking rather than spend money on packs or cartons of cigarettes."
Fulton says the roll-your-own "smokes" were milder than manufactured products,
"One customer said her throat didn't burn and she was able to go back to running," Fulton said. "She said she'd stop smoking again rather than buy them from stores."
But with a daughter to feed, Fulton is still trying to make a go of it.
"We still sell tobacco, hookahs and accessories, and cigars, hand-rolling machines, incense and electronic cigarettes," Fulton said.
The road ahead may be rough, though.
"I haven't had a customer all day," Fulton told the T-G shortly before noon one day last week.