After weeks of politicking to get an exemption — any exemption — to the state's smoking ban through the Legislature this session, it looks like pro-tobacco forces will get no relief from the nation's strictest smoking ban. And that steams restaurant and bar owners around the state, who say they've seen their business drop since the ban went into effect Dec. 8.
Washington State Legislature
Information on the session, including bills, hearings, and votes.
"We've been in business 10 years, and we just had our worst January ever," says Keith Robbins, owner of Tini Bigs, a cigar and martini bar on Lower Queen Anne. He says regulars have disappeared from the bar, he's lost $6,000 a month in cigar sales, and, contrary to predictions of the ban's backers, nonsmoking customers have not filled the void. What's more, he says, bartenders' tips have plummeted under what advocates marketed as a "workers' rights" initiative.
Joe Arundel of Rain City Cigar, which supplies cigar bars like El Gaucho and Daniel's Broiler, says he lost $100,000 in sales in December. Other states with smoking bans have exemptions for tobacco stores and cigar bars, but not Washington, where customers can buy cigars but not try samples in the store.
"It would be like if I were in the wine business and the state told me I couldn't allow people to sample the stuff," says Arundel. "It just doesn't make sense." Like others in the bar and restaurant business, they'd hoped to see legislators carve out exemptions to the law due to the dramatic sales decreases at bars, taverns, and cigar stores. Legislators introduced six bills this session to chip away at the ban — everything from exemptions for Native American religious ceremonies to shortening the dreaded 25-foot rule to 10 feet. Separate efforts by cigar-bar owners, who see their cause as apart from cigarette smokers, never made it into bill form, since they were largely given the cold shoulder during discussions with legislators.
State Rep. Eileen Cody, D-West Seattle, who chairs the House's Health Care Committee, is identified as a major impediment to any exemptions. Cody did not return a request for comment. Neither did Nick Federici of the American Lung Association of Washington.
The next move will likely be in court. One case is already pending in Whatcom County.
Anthony Anton, vice president of government affairs for the Washington Restaurant Association, says that he cannot get two lawyers to agree on the law's particulars, especially wording about the law not applying to private businesses. The restaurant association and others expect a legal opinion from the state Attorney General on interpretation of the law in April and don't plan to challenge it in court before that.
One House bill would not be an exemption to the smoking ban but would make it illegal for employers to discriminate against smokers in hiring and firing decisions. But the bill's author, state Rep. Dawn Morrell, D-Puyallup, who is a non-smoking critical-care nurse, said the bill will not make it out of the Rules Committee for a floor vote this session. She's bothered that employers can discriminate against smokers. "It would seem like it's not any of their business," she says.