Las Vegas Sun

October 20, 2014

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Smoking ban tests resourcefulness

When a tough, voter-approved anti-smoking law went into effect in January, Southern Nevada bar owner Rich Hall, like many other local tavern operators, ignored it for a couple of weeks.

And then Hall, who operates three local bars, realized he had a bunch of nervous smokers on his hands.

"Whenever anyone would come into the bar, customers would cup their cigarettes in their hands and shift their eyes back and forth," Hall said. "It was like watching teenagers smoking behind the schoolhouse.

"I didn't want to put them through that."

So he installed a glass wall.

Hall, a 54-year-old non smoker whose restaurants prior to passage of the measure last November already were non smoking, installed sealed glass partitions separating the bar from the restaurant in each of his businesses. The price tag for all three locations was about $60,000, he said.

Hall's places and more than 100 other local bars have been approved by the Southern Nevada Health District for such modifications to comply with the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act , which went into effect in January.

The law prohibits smoking in places that serve food, including bars, grocery stores and convenience stores. Major casinos are exempt from the law, as are some bars that have unrestricted gaming licenses.

Smoking is permitted in bars that do not have food or have done away with food service.

Many tavern owners continue to ignore the law. Although they may have gotten rid of ashtrays and match books, they still wink and provide cups of water for their smoking customers' ashes, and then look away.

The health district, the law's chief enforcer, is trying to get scofflaw bar owners to obey the measure - under threat of lawsuit and civil penalties - but the progress has been slow.

"Overall, I am not satisfied" with the enforcement progress, said Southern Nevada Health District attorney Steve Minagil. "It's like trying to corral cats. Unfortunately, seven months after this law went into effect we are still running down complaints, writing letters, filing lawsuits. I'm optimistic that more places are complying, but it has come after a lot of work."

The district has investigated m ore than 2,000 complaints about bars violating the law . It has written letters to - and held meetings with - 20 of the most blatant alleged offenders and has filed lawsuits against two of them.

The district allows bar owners to separate their restaurants from their bars, essentially turning the bars into smoking-friendly stand-alone structures while maintaining a smoke-free environment in adjacent restaurants.

One of Hall's bars, Mulligan's Border Bar & Grill at Pebble Road and Maryland Parkway, is one of 130 establishments that has submitted such plans. To date, partition projects have been completed at 35 bars, the district says.

For some establishments, spending thousands of dollars for glass partitions to keep their food service was not cost-effective.

"We never even considered it (glass walls) because it already was costing us so much to keep the kitchen open," said Rebecca Marlowe, bar manager of the New York City Bar on Spring Mountain Road. "We were never really a food bar. It was just a convenience for our players."

After the law went into effect, the establishment closed its kitchen so patrons could smoke to their hearts' content.

The NYC Bar is one of a number of places that offers customers menus from area fast-food restaurants that deliver, which apparently does not violate the new law.

Marlowe said some customers have told her they miss her homemade meatloaf , which used to be on the Thursday menu, but she said business has been good since the change.

Hall, who moved to Las Vegas in 1989 and worked for the Big Dogs and Roadrunner bars before opening his own bar business with two partners in 2000, says he does not regret putting up the glass walls.

"Eventually this law is either totally going to go away or will be strictly enforced," he said. "My concern is that thumbing noses at the law will only make the anti-smoking advocates even more committed in their cause to wipe out smoking everywhere. And that won't help any of us."

In addition to putting up glass partitions, Hall revamped his air-conditioning system to prevent bar area intake vents from exporting smoky air through the restaurant vents.

Hall said he has no idea how long it will take to recoup those renovation costs because that hinges on whether his business picks up.

In the months shortly after the law went into effect, Hall said , his bar and restaurant business was down 20 to 25 percent. He says bar revenues have increased in recent months but the restaurant business remains slow despite glass walls keeping out the smoke.

But that isn't to say that his smoking gamblers still don't enjoy one of his restaurant's meals, thanks to a loophole in the law that Hall doesn't mind exploiting.

His bar patrons can order food in his restaurant, bring it back to the bar a few feet away on the other side of the glass partition, eat, smoke and gamble and still be in compliance.

"The law prohibits us from serving food (in the bar)," Hall said. "Technically, we are not serving it" when customers pick up a restaurant take-out order.

It's no different, he says, from when a bar customer brings in his own bagged lunch from home or a pizza or burger from a joint down the street - or orders out like at the New York City Bar. The law does not ban smoking and food eating, just smoking and food serving.

Some businessmen have tried to get around the law merely by giving their restaurants different names than their adjacent bars. Nice try, the health district says. Minagil said he has written them letters telling them they can't do that.

When the anti-smoking law went into effect, a number of bar operators said scores of small businesses would go under. But health district statistics show that the number of small local bars actually has increased slightly.

The health district said there were 1,957 permits in August 2006 for what the agency classifies as "drinking establishments." As of this month, that number is 2,029.

Hall says the district's permit figures surprise him. He reckons it will take a little more time before the bars that were most affected by the new law will go out of business in significant numbers.

"I can tell you there are a number of places that I know of that are on the brink of closing their doors because of this law," he said.