CARSON CITY — Lawmakers have introduced a surprise bill to lift the ban on smoking in bars that serve food, a move that might have generated more buzz Friday night if many taverns weren’t already breaking the law.
Inside the Tap House in Las Vegas, which cheerfully declares itself “smoker friendly!” on its façade, smokers and nonsmokers already sit side-by-side near patrons eating dinner.
“If I wanted clean air and kids around I’d go to a bookstore,” said Kenny Stevens, 36, who doesn’t smoke but still was pleased by the news.
Such statements were the norm in 2006, when voters approved the Clean Indoor Air Act, the measure that banned smoking in many businesses, including bars, taverns and saloons that serve food. Friday’s measure would repeal the restrictions on bars, but not on restaurants, slot-machine areas of grocery stores, schools and day-care centers.
Despite smokers’ nonchalance, the lawmakers’ action drew immediate condemnation from health advocates and applause from the tavern industry.
One Clark County commissioner said the casino industry was pressing lawmakers for the change to repay tavern owners for supporting restrictions on Dotty’s and other small-gaming establishments.
The Ways and Means Committee introduced Assembly Bill 571 so lawmakers can debate whether to repeal the ban for places that serve people who are 21 or older, said Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, the panel’s chairwoman.
She said bar owners, especially in Southern Nevada, have complained that the smoking ban has hurt business at a time when the economy is slumping.
“The tavern owners say they have suffered very serious business losses and people have lost their jobs because of the ban,” Smith said in an interview Friday.
Smith said she was reserving judgment on the bill, which will get a committee hearing Monday.
The ban is more contentious in Southern Nevada where taverns are competing with businesses such as Dotty’s that have no kitchens and cater to smokers who play slots. In Washoe County, there are fewer problems with the ban, Smith said.
The late introduction of the bill in the final two weeks of the session suggests some Democratic leaders back it.
It would probably get bipartisan support if it’s cast as a jobs-saver, and if big gaming gets behind the effort — increasing the chance of it passing.
Assemblyman Mark Sherwood, R-Henderson, decried the original ban and blamed “anti-smoking Nazis” for helping push voters to approve it in the first place.
“It’s been horrible for business,” Sherwood said when asked about the smoking restrictions, which he said were too harsh. “There are ways to do this without being draconian.”
But the American Lung Association in Nevada lambasted the effort to restore smoking in pubs that sell food.
The group noted that 310,000 people voted to forbid smoking near food. And in the same election, voters defeated a competing measure the industry proposed that would have weakened existing state laws on smoking in public places.
“There’s no safe level of secondhand smoke,” said Allison Newlon Moser, the lung association’s executive director.
It not only goes against the will of the public, Moser said, but it imperils the health of employees who must work in smoky settings. Working eight hours in a place with heavy secondhand smoke can be tantamount to puffing a pack of cigarettes, she said.
Nevadans already have a higher rate of emphysema than the national average, largely because of tobacco and air pollution, Moser said.
“The tavern owners talk about the jobs that are lost,” she said. If the bill passes, “it would only increase jobs for health care workers.”
Some bars and taverns complied with the ban, erecting walls between their restaurant and bar areas. But many business appeared to do little or nothing to comply with the effort. At the Tap House Friday evening, patrons smoked and drank at the bar, while others ate dinner just a few feet away.
Ken Kotora and his wife, Jaennette , have been visiting the bar since they moved to Las Vegas in 1996. They’re nonsmokers, and they were eating just a few feet away from smokers.
Ken Kotora, 65, voted in favor of the ban — but on accident. He said the language of the petition was misleading. He favors legislators repealing the ban.
“Don’t stop a bar from smoking,” he said. “Smokers have rights too.”
The couple said they noticed fewer customers at the Tap House just after the ban took effect, but business has returned to normal since.
One pub owner cheered when he heard of the legislative effort to overturn the ban.
Those who pursued the ban claimed that it would increase foot traffic in bars because more people would be attracted to smoke-free venues, but the opposite proved true, said Joe Wilcock, owner of the Brewery Bar and Grill and past president of the Nevada Tavern Association.
“That’s a fallacy — it never happened,” said Wilcock, who estimates his sales dropped by 25 percent.
No one can deny that smoking is unhealthy, Wilcock said. But people who don’t want to breathe secondhand smoke should not work or hang out in places where smoking is allowed, he said.
Wilcock noted that casinos are exempt from the smoking ban, calling it “hypocritical.”
County Commissioner Tom Collins, a former assemblyman, said he heard that big casinos cut a deal with the tavern owners; if the taverns backed restrictions on Dotty’s, the casinos would support lifting the smoking ban.
“That’s politics,” Collins said.
Gaming operators complained that it was unfair that they pay a percentage of their gambling revenue, while small establishments pay a flat fee, Collins said.
In April, commissioners approved new rules for Dotty’s and similar venues that include a requirement to embed eight gaming machines in bars instead of propping the machines atop bars. These businesses must comply within two years.
Also, any new place operating as a tavern must have 2,500 square feet of public space, a kitchen open at least 12 hours a day and be 2,000 feet away from another tavern.
Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association, declined to comment about the bill, saying she had just learned about it.
Jennifer Sizemore, Southern Nevada Health District spokeswoman, said the bill is no surprise.
Health officials began hearing rumblings during the Dotty’s uproar that the tavern industry would try to reverse the smoking ban, she said. Although the bill would forbid smoking if minors are on the premises, there are concerns about patrons and workers inhaling cigarette fumes, she said.
“As a public health agency, our goal is to protect as many people as possible from the dangers of secondhand smoke,” Sizemore said.