Monday, May 23, 2011 | 11:31 a.m.
Lawmakers have launched another 11th-hour debate into changing the voter-approved indoor smoking ban to allow bars and taverns to allow both smoking and food.
In Assembly Bill 571’s first hearing today, tavern owners renewed their argument that the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act has decimated their businesses, forcing them to lay off employees and costing them millions in revenue.
That law, passed by voters in 2006, forced many bars and taverns to choose between serving food and allowing smoking, undermining the business models of establishments throughout the state.
“Our business began to suffer immediately,” said Blake Sartini, CEO of Golden Gaming. “Smokers no longer felt welcome and non-smokers did not fill the void.
“We are a unique business. Smoking customers are a necessary component to a healthy tavern business.”
Proponents of the bill argued it would allow establishments that already allow smoking to serve food, as long as they don’t allow minors.
But while that may be the bill’s intent, it likely would also allow some taverns that serve food and allow children to once again allow smoking.
“You can certainly read it that way,” said Sean Higgins, lobbyist for a coalition of tavern owners and slot-route operators, who proposed the legislation. “But that is not the intent.”
Several of Higgins’ clients built a wall to separate their smoking bar customers from their food customers. Children are allowed in the restaurant portion of the business. Higgins said he wrote the legislation to allow those businesses to serve food in the bar and continue to allow children in the restaurant.
Anti-smoking advocates argued the bill is a “smoke screen” designed to hide a significant weakening of the voter-approved indoor smoking ban.
“This amendment of the existing definition of stand alone bar, would indeed expand the scope of where smoking is currently allowed,” said Michael Hackett, a lobbyist who helped organize the smoking ban petition.
Lawmakers on the Ways and Means Committee did not vote on AB571 today, but several lawmakers appeared antagonistic to the ban.
Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, said the smoking ban resulted in little more than layoffs.
“I don’t see that Question 5 actually worked,” she said. “People are still smoking. You didn’t change the actual act of smoking.
“You just have a bunch of people sitting at a bar smoking, drinking and playing poker with no food available.”
Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, chairwoman of the committee, had no reason for why the bill was introduced in the final days of the Legislature.
“It’s just one of those things that happen in the session,” she said.