Sitting in the Cigar Daddies' cigar club area in Lacey on Saturday co-owner Chance Wehrer hopes potential changes in state law will help ease operation limitations on cigar smoking for private clubs. Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com
Sitting in the Cigar Daddies' cigar club area in Lacey on Saturday co-owner Chance Wehrer hopes potential changes in state law will help ease operation limitations on cigar smoking for private clubs. Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com

Politics & Government

Plan would bring back cigar lounges, but with a twist: They could only hire smokers

February 10, 2017 07:00 AM

Cigar aficionados are continuing their fight to allow cigar lounges in Washington state.

But this year, to get around concerns that the lounges would expose workers to secondhand smoke, they’re proposing something new: Cigar lounges could only hire smokers as employees.

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State Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, said he’s trying to address the issue that he said has been the biggest source of opposition to cigar lounges in recent years.

“The biggest pushback, and maybe it is noble pushback, has been that you don’t want an innocent employee who doesn’t smoke to go in and be subject to tobacco smoke, if that’s the job they can find or can have,” Vick said at a hearing Tuesday at the state Capitol.

Vick is the prime sponsor of House Bill 1919, which would allow businesses to apply for cigar-lounge endorsements that would permit smoking of tobacco products in designated indoor areas with special ventilation. The bill would require cigar-lounge employees to sign a declaration saying they are active smokers and that they understand the risks posed by secondhand smoke.

State law would force them to get and stay addicted to a harmful substance in order to keep their jobs. This law would discourage smoking cessation.

Janna Bardi, assistant secretary for prevention and community health at the state Department of Health

“We said you have to sign an acknowledgment saying you understand the dangers of tobacco. You have to be a smoker,” Vick said.

The initial version of the bill would have also required employees to take blood tests proving they are active smokers, but Vick is now proposing to remove that language.

The cigar-lounge endorsements would create an exception to the state’s Smoking in Public Places Act, which Washington voters approved in 2005 to ban smoking in schools, bars, taverns, bowling alleys, places of employment and most hotel rooms.

Joe Arundel, president of the Cigar Association of Washington, said out-of-state visitors have trouble understanding why they can’t smoke a cigar in Washington, and local businesses lose revenue as a result.

Arundel said most people who work at bars that would open cigar lounges already smoke, so he doesn’t think requiring employees to be smokers will pose much of a problem.

He said requiring cigar-lounge employees to be smokers is one example of the industry “trying to be accommodating.”

Health-oriented groups don’t see it that way.

Michael Shaw, a lobbyist for the American Heart Association, asked what happens if an employee quits smoking while working at a cigar lounge.

If the legislation passes, then El Gaucho would like to be able to add cigar lounges similar to the one in our Portland location.

Beth Herrell Silverberg, spokeswoman for El Gaucho Hospitality

“Does that invalidate the (cigar lounge) endorsement? Do you fire that employee?” he asked.

“We have the first bill to my knowledge that would actually penalize someone for quitting smoking,” Shaw said.

The state Department of Health also testified against the bill, with particular concerns about making smoking a requirement for employees.

“State law would force them to get and stay addicted to a harmful substance in order to keep their jobs,” said Janna Bardi, the department’s assistant secretary for prevention and community health. “This law would discourage smoking cessation.”

Health advocates also oppose the measure on broader grounds, saying no amount of exposure to indoor smoke is safe for anyone, even if people are smoking cigars in a ventilated area. The advocacy arm of the American Cancer Society is one of the groups fighting the measure.

Should Vick’s bill become law, one business that would like to take advantage of it is the El Gaucho steakhouse. El Gaucho opened a cigar lounge at its Tacoma location several years ago, but was forced to close it in 2010 after a fight with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

“If the legislation passes, then El Gaucho would like to be able to add cigar lounges similar to the one in our Portland location,” wrote El Gaucho spokeswoman Beth Herrell Silverberg in an email.

Some private cigar clubs already exist in the state, including Cigar Daddies, a members-only operation in Lacey. Those types of members-only clubs don’t violate the state’s indoor smoking ban because they aren’t open to the general public, an employee at the business said Friday.

Vick’s bill, by contrast, would allow cigar lounges inside restaurants and bars that anyone can enter.

The proposal would allow for up to 40 cigar lounges statewide, while 75 retail tobacco shops also could apply for an endorsement to have special smoking areas.

The bill is expected to come up for a vote Tuesday in the House Business and Financial Services Committee.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1