LACONIA — Ignoring vocal opposition from city leaders, the state Liquor Commission voted to grant a retail tobacco license to a vape shop next to Laconia High School, a site even the chief hearing officer agreed is “not ideal.”
In a 14-page ruling issued Jan. 8, Chief Hearing Officer Joseph Plaia noted the objection to issuing the license to Raven Vapors voiced during the public hearing.
The city requested that the license be denied based on the shop’s location next to the high school and the rise in youth vaping amid growing concerns of its health risks to teens.
“Under the relevant controlled statutes, rules, and facts presenting here, denying Raven Vapors a Retail Tobacco License would be an overreaching act by the Commission, and one that could be considered an abuse of discretion at this time,” Plaia wrote.
In this case, the focus was on a narrow portion of the law, concerning whether the proposed location is an appropriate one, considering the nature of the business, the surrounding neighborhood and the number of similar businesses in the area.
Plaia noted that when he questioned members of the public who testified during the hearing about the surrounding neighborhood, they conceded that there are several other retail tobacco sellers in the area.
A gas station convenience store on the opposite side of the school sells cigarettes, chewing tobacco, e-cigarettes and alcohol. Across Union Avenue, Rite Aid sells tobacco and alcohol, and Smokers Haven, just down the street and near a private Catholic school, sells products akin to Raven Vapors.
“It should be noted from time to time the Commission has denied licenses when a municipality argues an oversaturation of like businesses within a certain area, but that is not what the Commission has been asked to consider here,” Plaia wrote in finding that the license should be granted.
While acknowledging that city officials, residents and students had raised serious concerns about the issues of youth vaping and the location of this retailer, Plaia said, they should not be discouraged that the Commission’s decision is bound by current state laws and rules.
“I recommend that you continue to voice your concerns to your local governing body and state representatives in order to change and/or amend the law and rules that govern these licenses,” he concluded.In support of issuing the license, Plaia noted that no evidence was presented that the vape shop’s owner Tom Slawniak was “not of sufficiently good character” or presented “substantial doubt that the proposed business shall be operated in strict accordance with all applicable state and federal…control laws and rules.”
During the hearing, Slawniak testified that he is a stickler for requesting an ID from anyone entering his shop and that anyone not able to provide proof of age is asked to leave. He said that the criticism aimed at his business was misplaced, spurred at least partly by last fall’s report of vaping-related deaths linked to the use of bootlegged THC products.
“We plan to work collaboratively with the city, police department and school district on an education and awareness effort to support Mr. Slawniak in maintaining compliance, including adhering to age restrictions, as he has done so since the business began operations in 2017,” said Chief Mark Armaganian, Director of the NH Liquor Commission Division of Enforcement and Licensing.