- Associated Press - Saturday, January 31, 2015

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - In the years since Washington voters approved a statewide smoking ban nearly a decade ago, Daniel Shaw and his cigars have wandered a state thin on options for places to light up and smoke.

Shaw can be found a couple of nights a week perched at the upstairs bar of a tribal casino in Fife, a 10-minute drive from Tacoma and a rare haven to enjoy a pricey cigar in the company of other smokers. Never mind the gambling in the rest of the building.

“I just really gravitated here because of the fact this is where I could enjoy my passion,” the 64-year-old Tacoma man said over a thick Davidoff cigar and a glass of Dewar’s scotch.

For the fourth time since the smoking ban took effect, Washington state is seeing a movement to give Shaw and fellow cigar lovers state-regulated places to smoke. A bill passed unanimously Thursday by the House Commerce and Gaming Committee would legalize cigar bars and smoking rooms in tobacco shops, allowing 115 new venues to smoke pipes and cigars.

Proponents say the state would gain tax money and give users of a legal, controlled substance a place to use what they’re buying. Opponents see an immense public health concern and a betrayal of the voters who passed the smoking ban in 2005.

“It’s a bad idea,” said Rep. Eileen Cody, D-West Seattle. “They’re basically trying to get around the Clean Indoor Air Act that was supported by a wide margin.”

Cody chairs the House Health Care and Wellness Committee and helped thwart earlier House bills to allow cigar bars. Cody said she plans to oppose the latest attempt to make Washington the 36th state to legalize cigar bars, possibly by bringing the bill into her committee for review.

“Somebody’s going to be working there, and they’re going to be exposed to it,” Cody said.

Nebraska also has a cigar bar bill before its state legislature this year. Several other states have no laws prohibiting such places, said Craig Williamson, president of the Cigar Association of America.

“We’ve been trying for the last few years to get cigar lounges back,” Williamson said.

His Washington, D.C.-based industry group has spent more than $200,000 lobbying in Olympia in the last three years, state records show.

Periodic attempts to carve a cigar lounge niche into the state smoking ban have come and gone without leaving much of a mark. A 2008 effort to put an initiative on the ballot didn’t get enough signatures. Bills in 2011 and 2013 died without a House floor vote.

Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Felida, sponsors this year’s version, which is less ambitious than its predecessors. The previous bill would have allowed 100 bars and 500 smoking rooms, while this year’s effort would create 40 and 75, respectively.

The bill requires employees who might come into contact with tobacco smoke to sign an acknowledgment, and it forbids businesses from punishing those who refuse. Vick, who is a contractor, wrote detailed requirements for the ventilation systems a building would need before receiving a license for tobacco use.

“Some of these places, with the technology today, you’re going to be able to walk in and not know you’re in one,” Vick told the Commerce and Gaming Committee.

Dr. Anthony Chen, the Pierce County Director of Health, disputed that claim and said tobacco smoke can seep out of rooms. “This bill has some very impressive-sounding technical specifications, but they do not work,” he said.

Visits to two establishments where cigars can be smoked in public - Smokey Joe’s Cigars and Sports Lounge in a Fife casino and Brown and Sons Premium Cigars in Olympia, a shop staffed by its owners with a back room for members - found the air thick with pungent smoke and devotees who say they’re drawn to mix their smoking with socializing.

“It’s definitely everyday people,” said Brown and Sons member Keith Brown, 52, an Olympia business owner who is not related to the shop owners, though the camaraderie of their rare cigars-only lounge makes it feel otherwise.

The intimacy forced by a standing ban on all but a few smoking refuges does have detractors among the cigar crowd. Joe Arundel, owner of Rain City Cigars in Seattle and president of the Cigar Association of Washington, backs the drive for cigar bars. A smoking room would let him sell customers on varieties. He compared it to a cheese shop handing out small samples.

“Cigars are a legal product, yet we’re not allowed to sample it in the cigar shop,” Arundel said. “Sort of contrary to doing business, y’think?”

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