Thursday, March 1, 2007 | 7:08 a.m.
Two men sitting at the bar at Screwballs sports bar and restaurant on Wednesday afternoon berated the anti-smoking law passed by voters in November.
And then they took deep drags on their cigarettes.
One man, a nearly 300-pound big-time slot player, blamed transplants from clean-air California for the law that bans smoking in restaurants, bars that serve food and convenience stores, among other public places.
After another puff, he dug into a steaming plate of beef stroganoff.
As a rule, smoking and stroganoff aren't supposed to go together in the new, anti-smoking world of Las Vegas taverns. So what gives?
Screwballs owner George Gatchis, a Southern Nevada resident for 11 years and a nonsmoker, said he and his workers are observing the law.
"We have done everything the (Southern Nevada) Health District has asked of us," Gatchis said. "We have put up no-smoking signs. We've removed all ashtrays from the place. And we tell customers if a Health District inspector comes in, he will cite them."
But he is not going to pull the cigarette from their mouths and he can only wonder where the ashes and butts will wind up - maybe on the floor, in a glass of water or perhaps alongside the noodles.
And so it goes: Bar and tavern operators are claiming to live by the letter of the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act - while allowing customers to eat and puff away in violation of the new law.
Health District spokeswoman Jennifer Sizemore says restaurant operators are not meeting the spirit of the law if they simply post no-smoking signs, remove ashtrays then turn a blind eye to smokers.
"They (business owners) have a greater responsibility," she said. "They can refuse to serve them (customers who break the law)."
Sizemore said more than 1,300 complaints of violations of the anti-smoking law have been made to her agency. A person caught smoking in places that serve cooked food can be fined $100 as can bar operators who refuse to enforce the law. No one has been cited yet as health officials grapple with how to effectively enforce the law.
The Health District is holding hearings to address that issue and to determine whether it can impose a $600 administrative fee on smoking-ban violators, on top of the fine.
Sizemore said the law designates health inspectors as the enforcers of the law, but noted that they are scientists and biologists, not cops. They will have to be trained in how to properly issue citations, she said.
She also concurred with what bar operators say - that the law does not require businesses to call the Health District to tattle on customers who smoke, and does not require bar employees to get physical with rule-breaking customers and remove them by force.
Local restaurateurs say they already have lost enough business and do not want to take any action that will cost them even more customers.
Gatchis said his dinner business dropped by half and slot revenue fell $4,000 to $5,000 a week since the anti-smoking law went into effect on Dec. 8.
Gatchis says he has laid off two employees and, if he were to close his restaurant, 19 more would hit the unemployment line.
Screwballs is hardly alone in indulging smoking gamblers while still offering food.
Across town at Chilly Palmer's on East Warm Springs Road, a woman was smoking at the bar Wednesday while playing slots. A bartender identifying herself as the day manager didn't want to talk to a reporter about it.
Bartenders at the Tap House on West Charleston Boulevard and at the Kopper Keg restaurant on East Tropicana Avenue both offered a Sun reporter ashtrays when he asked if he could smoke - after first announcing that theirs were nonsmoking establishments.
"We are having a hard time with this (law) when someone outright refuses to comply," said Dodd Martin, general manager of the Tap House, adding that an ashtray is offered if the bartender believes a patron will smoke anyway and flick ashes all over the place.
"We are probably going to have to start refusing to serve people who light up, but we don't want to run off all of our business," Martin said. For now, he said, slot business is down 20 percent.
Major casinos are exempt from the law, as are some bars that have unrestricted gaming licenses and bars that either do not have food or have done away with food service in favor of allowing smoking.
Some business operators say they have tried to comply with the spirit of the law and as a result have taken a financial beating.
Rick Santora, owner of Santora's Sunset Bar and Grill in Henderson, offers food and slots, and bans smoking on all shifts except graveyard, when patrons can light up because the restaurant is closed.
"For businesses like mine, this law is extremely unfair," Santora said. Restaurant business is off 30 percent and his slot business has dropped 25 percent since the smoking ban began.
Santora said he has approached the Health District with plans seeking to seal off his eating area from his bar so he can receive an exemption and reinstate smoking in his bar and gaming areas.