More than five years after Washington voters banned smoking in most public places, state lawmakers on Thursday took up a bill that would make an exception for a limited number of tobacco retailers.
The Senate Labor, Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee heard public testimony on a measure that would permit up to 100 cigar lounges and 500 retail tobacco shops to apply for state license endorsements to allow cigar and pipe smoking on their premises.
Cigarette smoking still would be banned.
Applicants would have to pay a $15,000 fee to obtain a cigar lounge endorsement and $5,000 to obtain a tobacco store endorsement.
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The Office of Financial Management estimates that the sale and renewal of endorsements would generate $240,000 over the next two years. Ninety-five percent of the proceeds would go to a special state fund supporting health care.
Senate Bill 5542 would bring much-needed revenue to the state while helping local businesses hurt by the 2005 smoking ban, said its sponsor, Sen. Jerome Delvin, who said he enjoys smoking cigars at home.
“This is an opportunity to allow our tobacconists to stay in business, and allow people to have a cigar and not stand out in the rain,” Delvin, R-Richland, told the committee Thursday.
Critics say the measure threatens public health, particularly the health of people employed by the would-be cigar lounges. Under the bill, employees would have to sign acknowledgements accepting that tobacco smoke might be present in their workplace.
“They’re being asked to waive their right to safety,” said Nick Federici, who testified on behalf of the American Cancer Society, which opposes the bill.
Health Secretary Mary Selecki called the measure “a step in the wrong direction” following voter approval of Initiative 901, which barred smoking in places such as bars, restaurants and nontribal casinos and established a 25-foot no-smoking buffer around doorways and ventilation openings.
The bill’s supporters argue that it would simply bring Washington in line with the majority of other states that exempt some businesses from their smoking regulations.
“This is a well-reasoned, narrowly defined exception to our smoking ban, which is one of the most restrictive in the nation,” said Dale Taylor, president of the Cigar Association of Washington.
Paul Mackay, the owner of El Gaucho steakhouses, testified in favor of the bill, saying cigar lounges would be safe and popular. Tacoma’s El Gaucho was forced to shut down its cigar lounge because of anti-smoking regulations.
“I’m only here because my customers keep asking and they want it and they’ve said, ‘Paul, how can we get this?’” he said.
The Labor, Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee has until the end of the day Monday to act on the measure.
A similar bill beat an important deadline Thursday to advance in the House. A committee there approved the cigar-lounge exemption, House Bill 1683, on a 10-3 vote.
Staff writers Jordan Schrader and Katie Schmidt contributed to this report.