"A CIGAR IS not like a cigarette," said El Gaucho owner Paul Mackay recently, glancing wistfully around the former site of his smoking lounge at the Belltown Gaucho, its cryptlike humidor locked behind glass doors. “I don’t see anyone bringing cigarettes back. But seeing my customers smoke a cigar…that’s much more healthy than standing in traffic behind one of those diesel buses.”

Mackay’s steak houses are chockablock with the accoutrements of fat-cat culture: high-end California cabs and dry-aged porterhouse chops, Caesar salads tossed tableside, and until 2005—when Washington voters opted to tamp out smoking in restaurants and bars—private cigar lounges where VIPs retired to puff postprandial Padrons and sip Courvoisier. There they lingered, closing deals and exercising expense account privileges. When the lounges closed the spending slowed: Mackay says his Seattle restaurant lost a million dollars in the first year of the ban. His Tacoma branch saw $400,000 go up in smoke. As for any dangers that secondhand smoke posed to employees, Mackay and fellow cigar advocates like Joe Arundel, president of the Cigar Association of Washington (CAW), claim that servers lined up to work the lounge, where tips were tops and the labor was light.

In 2010, Mackay attempted to circumvent the law, reopening his Tacoma cigar room after renovating it and setting up a limited liability company with three employees. An injunction soon followed; the lounge closed. Concluding that he had no hope of winning in the Pierce County courts, Mackay teamed up with CAW to author two bills (Senate bill 5542 and House bill 1683) that proposed smoking-ban exceptions for cigar lounges and tobacco shops. The bills would levy pricey license fees—lounge owners would pay $15,000 a year, tobacco retailers $5,000—designed to entice legislators facing a budgetary crisis.

Fourteen percent of Washingtonians smoke. Only California, Massachusetts, and Utah have fewer puffers.

Gary Johnson, prevention division manager for Public Health of Seattle and King County, made the trip to Olympia in February to offer his thumbs down on the bills. Since the smoking ban went into effect, Johnson notes, the number of Washingtonians who smoke has dropped to just over 14 percent, down from 20 percent. Only California, Massachusetts, and Utah have fewer puffers. “We don’t want to lose that.” And Johnson sniffed at the notion that cigars pose less danger than other tobacco products, pointing out that cigar smoke is a Class A carcinogen. He similarly dismissed the idea that cigar lounge licenses would pad state coffers in a time of need. “That’s a false economy,” he said, explaining that the earnings “would not come anywhere near to addressing the health-related expenses associated with secondhand smoke.”

Those expenses are considerable: Washington spends over $650 million in public health funds each year treating tobacco-related illnesses and, of 7,930 tobacco-related deaths three years ago, 300 were attributed directly to secondhand smoke. Neither of the cigar lounge bills made it out of committee this session, but both sides expect more such measures in the future. Promised CAW’s Arundel: “We’re always going to push back.”