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January 21, 2018

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Coolican: Why Big Gaming helped snuff out voter-approved smoking ban

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J. Patrick Coolican


Cindy Clark plays a slot machine at Dotty's near Eastern and Serene in Henderson on Thursday, March 24, 2011. Launch slideshow »

The first time tavern owners tried to overturn the smoking ban, during the 2009 Legislature, I was amazed they even got it out of committee, foolishly thinking Democrats in the majority would never go against the voters who had approved the ban in 2006. I asked a lobbyist working against the smoking ban if he’d be getting a bonus in cartons of cigarettes.

“Cigarettes?” he replied. “Those things will kill you.”

The gallows humor only continued this session, when lobbyists hired to end the ban on serving food in taverns that allow smoking came up with a brilliant way to frame the argument:

Oh no, we’re not trying to bring smoking into taverns. We want to bring food into taverns. See? It’s not the smoking bill. It’s the cheeseburger bill.

This ingenious bit of nonsense was meant to obscure the fact that Nevada must be the only state in the union that is about to loosen restrictions on indoor smoking in public areas.

I’m genuinely conflicted by this issue, but here’s what I know:

At the center of it, as with so much else in Nevada politics and government, is Big Gaming.

In 2005 and 2006, as the anti-smoking coalition prepared its initiative, it shied away from a statewide public indoor smoking ban that has proved successful — and popular — in California, New York and more than 20 other states that live under the thumb of what one pal jokingly called “Big Health.”

Why didn’t the Nevadans go for a statewide ban?

Tom McCoy, head of government affairs for the American Cancer Society’s Nevada chapter, was quite open about it: “From a practical standpoint, the decision was made that this campaign would never have the ability, the funding, the political capital to accomplish a totally smoke-free Nevada our first time out. So a decision was made not to go after Big Gaming. I don’t think I have to tell you the power of Big Gaming.”

No, you certainly don’t.

So instead, they made a deal with the devil, as Big Gaming happily watched as the anti-smoking coalition proceeded to go after Big Gaming’s competitors — grocery and convenience stores with slot machines and of course the taverns that were on every corner in 2006, serving food and drink to smoking and gambling customers who were awash in money working overtime on construction sites or flipping houses.

The problems with the initiative, aside from exempting the big resorts, were many: The criminal penalties were poorly drafted and struck down.

In Southern Nevada, Metro Police decided it couldn’t enforce the initiative, so it was left to the Health District. Who knew we even had a Health District?

The target, bizarrely, was the smoker, not the tavern. What Health District worker wanted to levy a fine on some big biker dude?

So it’s often not being enforced. Drive around on a Saturday night and I guarantee you’ll be able to find a place where you can alternate bites on your cheeseburger with a puff of a cigarette. Mmmm.

Still, many taverns decided to abide by the law. In many cases they separated their food from their smoking bars at great expense. Or they got rid of food and lost customers. Or they got rid of smoking.

Enter Dotty’s, the sad little slot parlors that don’t serve real food and so allow smoking. Dotty’s has spread through the valley like the flu in a grade school, in part because it doesn’t have to deal with the smoking ban.

Big Gaming, especially Station Casinos, had seen enough Dotty’s open under its nose, and so the Nevada Resort Association went to the Clark County Commission to do what it believed the Gaming Commission should have done a long time ago and declared the Dotty’s business model illegal.

To win over the tavern owners as allies in their fight against Dotty’s, the Nevada Resort Association pledged to help overturn the smoking ban at the Legislature.

And guess what? After failing in 2009, this time, with Big Gaming on its side, it succeeded. The bill passed late in the session, and the governor will probably sign it.

By rolling back the initiative, Big Gaming insulates itself from a smoking ban because any ban would probably be incremental and thus two steps away from reaching the biggest casinos. The industry essentially bought itself a few years of smoky reprieve from the health crowd.

The downside: Service workers will be exposed to secondhand smoke.

The response: Go get a job at a place that’s smoke-free. OK, but that’s a tough message to send in an economy with double-digit unemployment.

The smoking ban is on the mat, and as one tavern lobbyist joked, “Next session, we go for the day care centers.” At least, I hope he was joking.

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