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May 29, 2015

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Taxpayer-funded ad that backs smoking ban raises questions

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A screengrab is shown from an anti-smoking ad airing in Southern Nevada.

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A commercial playing on TV and radio in Southern Nevada rattles off a list of U.S. cities — Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Dallas — and asks what they have in common. The answer: a complete indoor smoking ban.

“The greatest cities in the world have clean indoor air,” the commercial states. “It’s time we catch up. It’s time for Vegas to not allow smoking indoors. It’s time for Vegas to be smoke free.”

The ad — paid for by a Centers for Disease Control grant — never specifically mentions legislation, but it clearly aims to raise support for an all-encompassing indoor smoking ban in Las Vegas, where smoking is outlawed in many places but is permitted in casinos, bars and, thanks to the 2011 Legislature, some restaurants.

“The ultimate goal would definitely be to expand the Clean Indoor Air Act,” said Nikki Antos, Southern Nevada coordinator for Evolvement, an anti-smoking advocacy group that’s one of the ad’s sponsors.

Government-funded anti-smoking ads are common. Tobacco settlement money and health department grants regularly pay for media campaigns that warn people about the dangers of smoking. But those ads typically stress the health implications of smoking, such as its link to cancer or effect on children. Rarely do such campaigns push for specific changes to law.

In fact, the use of taxpayer money for lobbying is prohibited by the Health and Human Services Department. How, then, can the ad promote an expansion of the Clean Indoor Air Act?

The loophole is in its language.

“Lobbying by the CDC’s standard is making a direct request to lawmakers for a change,” said Malcolm Ahlo of the Tobacco Control Program at the Southern Nevada Health District, which administers the grant that paid for the ad. “If the commercial said, ‘Hey legislators, expand the Clean Indoor Air Act,’ or ‘Vote no on 571,’ that would be lobbying.”

Because the ad avoids the words “legislator” or “bill,” it passes muster. The campaign’s website, smokefreevegas.com, also makes clear: “This campaign is not advocating for any particular piece of legislation and is solely focused on educating the public.”

Still, the advocates concede that the commercial pushes for a specific outcome, namely a stricter Clean Indoor Air Act.

And although that’s legal, not everyone thinks it’s right. Ahlo and Antos said their groups have received complaints from people who are angry that their tax dollars are financing such a campaign. In other words, Nevadans who enjoy lighting up in a bar or tourists who come to Las Vegas to puff a cigar at a slot machine are paying for the commercial that promotes outlawing what they enjoy.

Ahlo says that’s how the system works.

“The beauty of our taxes is you don’t decide how they are spent,” Ahlo said. “Someone might say ‘I don’t want my tax money to pay for welfare or go to the war because I don’t agree with it,’ but you can’t decide that.”

The Health Department received $14.6 million in federal grants to be spent over two years for anti-tobacco and smoking cessation campaigns. Money went to various community groups, such as the American Lung Association, Evolvement and the UNLV Nursing School, which used the money to launch a campaign to make the entire college campus smoke free.

About $5 million was spent on the “Right to Breathe” campaign, of which the commercial is a part. Money also paid for radio and print ads.

Nevada voters approved a smoking ban in November 2006 that outlawed smoking in all enclosed public workplaces except casino gaming areas and bars that don’t serve food.

Tavern owners launched several efforts to overturn the law and succeeded this year; the Legislature decided to allow both smoking and food service in adults-only bars, or within family restaurants if the smoking area is enclosed. Anti-smoking advocates worry that the law will be eroded further.

“We do get complaints about the tax money, but tobacco prevention has been extremely effective,” Antos said. “What people don’t understand is, not only are they paying for tobacco prevention programs, but whether they smoke or not, they are paying for Medicare and Medicaid for people with lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases.”

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