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August 3, 2015

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Bill would lift smoking ban in adults-only taverns

Ever since voters passed an initiative petition banning smoking from most indoor locations, lobbyists for the gaming industry, tavern owners and others worked to thwart it.

They have been unsuccessful. But this session, in a move reminiscent of some last-minute legislative shenanigans in past sessions, lobbyists have succeeded in introducing a bill that would allow bar owners to again serve food to smoking customers.

Advocates for the 2006 Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act argue Assembly Bill 571, introduced on the 103rd day of the 120-day session, portends to make small changes to the law while gutting a key provision: to keep children in restaurants away from secondhand smoke.

Proponents of the bill — a coalition of tavern owners and slot-route operators — argue voters never intended to keep bars from serving food to adult customers who smoke. They say AB571 would not allow traditional restaurants to open smoking sections, rather it would only allow food service in adults-only stand-alone bars.

But they admit that the way it’s written, the bill could revive a once-thriving market of family-friendly taverns that previously allowed drinking, gambling, smoking and food service.

“You can certainly read it that way,” said Sean Higgins, lobbyist for tavern owners and slot-route operators who proposed the legislation. “But that is not the intent.”

It’s a policy debate that has raged since 2005 and has provoked some memorable maneuvers to save once-dead legislation — in 2009, lobbyists resurrected a bill exempting tobacco conventions from the ban by amending rejected language to an anti-stalking bill that had more lawmaker support.

This time, lawmakers have less than three weeks to decide the bill’s fate.

But lobbyists supporting the bill think it has a better chance of success because it’s narrowly tailored and, perhaps more important, the three-year ban on lawmakers changing a voter-approved law has expired.

They also have numbers on their side — $114 million in lost revenue and 358 lost jobs in the first year of the act.

The act, passed by voters in 2006, forced many bar owners to make the difficult choice between allowing smoking and serving food. To thrive, many taverns need to be able to do both. As an indication of how important smoking customers are to their bottom line, taverns have found a variety of expensive work-arounds. Some built enclosed eating sections that don’t allow smoking. Others opened completely separate smoking bars next to their food-serving establishment, walking over entrees in Styrofoam containers to smoking customers.

“Our business began to suffer immediately,” said Blake Sartini, CEO of Golden Gaming. “Smokers no longer felt welcome and nonsmokers did not fill the void.

“We are a unique business. Smoking customers are a necessary component to a healthy tavern business.”

They have also spent heavily to persuade lawmakers and the public to change what voters enacted. In 2005, they proposed a competing measure that appeared to ban most indoor smoking, but left huge gaps.

In 2007, they mostly left the issue alone.

But in 2009, they tried to persuade lawmakers to exempt taverns, convenience stores, grocery stores and other establishments from the ban, even though state law prohibited lawmakers from doing so until the law had been in effect for three years.

Although lawmakers are now free to fiddle with the law, at least one voter wanted to know why they would. But she didn’t get very far with her questions during a hearing Monday.

“Why not just send it back to the people to vote again if you’re going to change it?” Reno mother of three Chandra Mayer said.

“Is that your testimony?” said Assemblyman Marcus Conklin, D-Las Vegas, after Mayer paused for an answer.

“That’s it,” Mayer answered.

“OK, questions for the committee?” Conklin said.

“Or answers?” Mayer said.

“Actually, this is a hearing. We ask questions,” Conklin said.

“Therein lies the problem, how do we get answers?” Mayer said.

Conklin then told her to contact her elected representative.

As for why the bill was introduced by the Assembly Ways and Means Committee at the last minute?

No answers there, either.

“It’s just one of those things that happens in the session,” said Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, the committee’s chairwoman.

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