- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

SPOKANE, Wash. | As quests for freedom go, it’s not exactly the fight against apartheid in South Africa. But cigar smokers around the country are fed up with smoking bans that prevent them from enjoying stogies in cigar bars with friends.

A rising number of states have moved to exempt cigars from indoor smoking bans, often by establishing cigar bars or smoking lounges inside cigar stores. Pro-cigar groups have sprung up nationally and in most states, spreading a message that their product is fundamentally different from cigarettes.

Cigar smokers are not interested in exposing the general public to their pungent fumes, said Joe Arundel, president of the Cigar Association of Washington. But they don’t see why they can’t smoke in the company of fellow enthusiasts - a gathering known as a “herf” in cigar circles - in businesses dedicated solely to the product.

“It’s not like people walk into a cigar store by accident,” said Mr. Arundel, who operates Rain City Cigar in Seattle.

Washington used to have cigar bars and lounges. But a ban on all indoor smoking in 2005 put them out of business. A bill introduced in the state legislature this year that would allow a limited number of cigar lounges and bars has languished in committee, after getting vehement opposition from the state Department of Health.

Washington state health officials oppose any change to the state’s indoor smoking ban, one of the nation’s first, said Tim Church, a spokesman for the agency. “The indoor smoking law was passed by a great majority in every county in Washington state.”

The ban is intended to protect the health of nonsmokers and especially of employees who work in bars and restaurants, Mr. Church said.

Washington has been inhospitable to smokers for years. The state was an early adopter of smoking bans in bars and restaurants, and its cigarette tax of more than $3 a pack is among the highest in the nation.

Annie Tegen of Seattle, program manager for Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, said they oppose any effort to weaken smoking bans.

“The public loves this law,” Ms. Tegen said. “There is no reason to weaken this law and put our workers at risk.”

But after years of victories, there are signs that anti-smoking forces are encountering some resistance. A nationwide advocate for cigar smokers said the tide seems to be turning against bans that lump cigars with cigarettes.

Kansas, Minnesota and Illinois also have pending legislation that would loosen smoking bans to allow for cigar bars, said Glynn Loope, executive director of Cigar Rights of America.

“‘Five years ago, I wouldn’t give you a $10 bet on any of these bills being drafted,” Mr. Loope said. Now some might even be passed, he said. New York, Nebraska, and Oregon are among 13 states that ban indoor smoking but allow exemptions for cigar bars, he said.

Cigars and cigarettes have fundamental differences, cigar advocates say. Premium cigars are more expensive, take longer to smoke and tend to be favored by older people. Cigar smokers don’t chain-smoke and often regard their activity as an occasional luxury to be savored with friends and a drink, Mr. Loope said.

“The cigar industry is based on art and culture, and not being abusive to the product,” he said. “The average cigar smoker smokes two a month.”

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