Lobbyists push for softening Clean Air Act

Lobbyists for bars, restaurants and casinos clashed Friday with public health advocates during a legislative hearing on a plan to ease terms of a voter-approved initiative that banned smoking in bars and other public places. From left, lobbyists Tom Clark, with Holland & Hart, Steve Arcana with Golden Gaming and Sean HIggins with Herbst Gaming, were among the many who testified. (AP Photo/Nevada Appeal, Cathleen Allison)

Lobbyists for bars, restaurants and casinos clashed Friday with public health advocates during a legislative hearing on a plan to ease terms of a voter-approved initiative that banned smoking in bars and other public places. From left, lobbyists Tom Clark, with Holland & Hart, Steve Arcana with Golden Gaming and Sean HIggins with Herbst Gaming, were among the many who testified. (AP Photo/Nevada Appeal, Cathleen Allison)

Bar and tavern owners asked lawmakers Friday to change the voter-approved ban on smoking in places that serve food.

The Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act has been in effect since voters approved the initiative in 2006. Proponents said it would ban smoking in restaurants and any bars " such as sports bars " that also cater to children.

But the legislation forced many bars that offered a luncheon or snack menu to stop serving all food.

SB372 would change it so that both stand-alone bars and establishments that are willing to create separate and ventilated smoking areas to cater to smokers can serve food.

Lobbyists for the convenience stores, bars and taverns said the law brought an immediate and devastating financial impact to their businesses when it took effect in January 2007.

But opponents said the voters have already weighed in on the issue and that the changes proposed would again expose non-smokers and children to second-hand smoke.

"It rolls back a significant public health advancement and opposes the will of the voters," said Dr. Mary Anderson of the Washoe County Health District.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Terry Care, D-Las Vegas, asked whether smokers "should be allowed to gather some place where children are not permitted to eat, drink, gamble and smoke."

"That's more of a civil liberty question than a health question," said Anderson. "My position is I do not approve of smoking."

Jim Wadhams representing Golden Gaming said his client "largely operates smoking bars" limited to patrons 21 and over. He said the bill would simply allow them to serve customers a hamburger.

"Our operations are not restaurants," said Golden CEO Steve Arcana. "Our taverns cater to responsible adult activity."

He estimated that 25 percent of their customers smoke, so the ban had "a disproportionate impact on our revenue."

Arcana said those taverns experienced a 25 percent drop in revenue from December 2006 to January 2007 when the ban took effect. Food sales, he said, dropped 28 percent and gaming revenues more than 17 percent.

He said closing the kitchens cost 60 Golden employees their jobs.

Joe Wilcox, who runs the Brewery Bar and Grill in Las Vegas, said the ban forced him to lay off four of 17 workers.

Sean Higgins of Herbst said 75 percent of their tavern locations saw a dramatic drop in revenues in the six months following the ban. For Herbst, the largest tavern operator in the state, he said that cost more than $50 million.

He said SB372 will help fix that without expanding smoking to any areas that can be used by children. Non-smoking adults, he said, can make the choice whether to go to a smoking bar or not but children would be barred from them.

"I know it's an emotional issue for many people. However, last time I checked, in the United States of America, smoking is a legal activity."

Michael Hackett for the American Cancer Society and Nevada State Medical Association said it is irresponsible to blame every ill in the bar and tavern industry on the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act. He said the purpose of the act was to protect non-smokers, especially children, from the dangers of cigarette smoke and that it is doing that.

"I thought we won this campaign back in 2006," he told the committee. "Where is the proof that shows these economic hardships are tied directly and specifically to the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act?"

He said existing law allows bars to provide a smoking area separate from the main bar. But he said the real crux of the issue is that "this is what voters wanted."

Reno cardiologist Dr. Richard Seher said the nation is in an epidemic caused by smoking. He recited numerous health issues caused by smoking.

But Care, a non-smoker, asked whether the state has a duty to protect adults from themselves.

"Well, we pass speed limit laws to protect people from themselves," Seher said.

Melissa Burns, who identified herself as a 27 year old waitress and mother of two, said overturning the law passed by a vote of the people would be immoral.

"Daily, we who are not addicted to this have been forced against our wills our whole lives to breathe in other people's toxic air because they need to relax or need to de-stress," she said. "The voters finally spoke up and said no more."

The committee took no action on SB372.

Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.

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