A bill to allow smoking in cigar lounges and tobacco shops in Washington has been moving forward in the state Legislature, but it has been controversial every step of the way.
Senate Bill 5542, which had a hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee today, would set up special smoking endorsements people could buy and contribute the money to the state’s Basic Health Program, a proposal supporters say would be safe but opponents argue would be bad health policy for Washington.
Sen. Jerome Delvin, a Richland Republican and the bill’s sponsor said it was a good opportunity for the state to make money.
“It is big business,” he said. “There’s a lot of cigar smokers out there.”
Under the bill, licensed tobacco retailers could apply for an endorsement, which would cost between $5,000 and $15,000, to allow smoking in a ventilated, closed-off area. It would bring in about $3.5 million in the coming biennium, 95 percent of which would go into a fund to pay for state-subsidized health insurance.
In 2005, voters approved Initiative 901, which banned smoking in indoor public places, leading to the shut-down of cigar lounges in Washington.
During the hearing, supporters pointed out that the bill would promote free choice for adults and would be profitable for businesses that get the endorsements.
“This is a big impact on our business,” said Chad Mackay, President of Mackay restaurants, which used to own tobacco lounges in Seattle and Tacoma. “We would be happy to pay the $15,000 to re-open three different cigar rooms complete with additional investments in air systems and air quality.”
Opponents, on the other hand, argued that the state would simply add healthcare costs if the measure were approved.
“While we understand that the revenue-generating ideas are appealing in this very difficult economic time, they should not be implemented at the expense of strong health policy that we have enjoyed in this state,” said Dennis Worsham, the President of the Washington State Public Health Association.
According a 2010 report by the Washington Health Department, tobacco-related health problems lead to public-funded healthcare costs of about $651 million per year in Washington.
Lawmakers sent the bill out of the Senate Labor, Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee last week with no recommendation, and, in February, a similar House bill made it out of the Business and Financial Services Committee with a do-pass recommendation.
Ways and Means Committee Chair, Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said he had no idea at this point whether his committee would have the votes to pass the measure forward.
In order to become law, the bill still has to pass both houses in a floor vote and be approved by the governor.