OLYMPIA -- The future is unclear for Washington states cigar smokers, after a proposal to allow them to smoke at some businesses became part of a tobacco-related measure Friday night.
The amendment to House Bill 2565 would allow cigar smoking at up to 100 cigar bars and 500 tobacco retailers in the state. That means bars and restaurants, as well as tobacco shops, could apply for an endorsement to allow cigar and pipe smoking at their establishments. Cigarette smoking would not be permitted.
The smoking areas would need to be separate, enclosed spaces with independent ventilation systems.
In 2005, Washington voters banned smoking in public places such as bars and restaurants. Joe Arundel, president of the Cigar Association of Washington, says that law hasn't left smokers with many options.
"It's definitely caused a lot of grief for people who enjoy cigars and pipes," Arundel said.
The cigar lounge proposal made headway last year, but hadn't seen recent action until last week when lawmakers attached it to a bill that seeks to tax cigarettes from roll-your-own machines.
Businesses would be charged $17,500 for the cigar lounge endorsement, and $6,000 for the tobacconist shop version, with the money to be used for regulation enforcement and tobacco prevention and cessation funding.
Opponents say the roughly $1.3 million that would be raised by July 2013 isn't worth endangering the health of workers at cigar lounges and tobacco shops.
"We do not want this blood money and that would come in at the cost of workers health," said Erin Dziedzic, lobbyist for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.
Dziedzic said the cancer society would rather see tobacco settlement or tobacco tax funds designated for prevention and control. Last year, the Legislature cut all smoking prevention and cessation programs.
Meanwhile, the state spends about $2 billion on tobacco-related health care each year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics cited by Dziedzic.
"It's a tough economy still, and these are good jobs," Dziedzic said. "Workers are going to be forced to potentially lose their jobs, or have to work in a smoke-filled environment."
Cigar bars would be required to have employees sign a form acknowledging that there could be smoke in their workplace.
Arundel said the bill prevents employers from discriminating against workers who refuse to sign the acknowledgment. He said many potential cigar bars are large organizations that would be able to shift employees to other parts of their businesses as needed, and that all five employees at his own tobacco shop in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood already are smokers.
The endorsement proposal was supported last year by Paul Mackay, owner of Tacoma's El Gaucho steakhouse. He was forced to close his Tacoma cigar lounge in 2010 after a fight with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
Mackay told lawmakers that his customers ask for the service and that it brings more revenue for employees.
Anthony Chen, health director for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, said the amendment is counterproductive to the public health benefits of the roll-your-own cigarettes bill itself.
Supporters of taxing do-it-yourself smokes say the extra cost would discourage smoking.
"You've got good public health intervention, and then you're subverting it," he said.
Republican Sen. Mark Schoesler of Ritzville sponsored the amendment. He was unavailable for comment Monday.
The measure has yet to pass the Senate Ways and Means committee.
* Alexis Krell: 360-943-7123, firstname.lastname@example.org