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February 1, 2015

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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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  1. I miss the $1.99 Steak & Eggs at the local Tavern at 3AM. Too Bad that's not going to happen again.

  2. I voted for the smoking ban. However, I have no problem with it being amended to allow smoking in adult only businesses. I simply will not patronize them. That's my choice. To patronize them may be your choice and, if you are an adult, why should I have the right to deny you that decision? We have enough rules, regulations and laws that try to make us do the "right" thing on the books already. Being free means being able to be stupid, as well and smoking is, in my opinion, stupid.

  3. Here we go again ...

    "The healthists aren't protecting anyone. What they're protecting is a "right" for themselves that they've fashioned out of whole cloth. They're fighting to get invited to the party, then make the rules once they get there. They want the so-called "right" to be self-appointed nanny, mother, rule maker, and rule enforcer for everyone else. It isn't enough for the smoke-free crowd to merely embrace good habits themselves. They want everyone else to share those habits too -- by force if necessary. It isn't enough for them to simply avoid businesses that allow smoking. They want a king's fiat to make them smoke free, or shut them down." -- Radley Balko's testimony about the smoking ban before the District of Columbia City Council, online @

  4. Smoking is a perfectly legal activity. So the larger question is this: What business does the government have telling some tavern owner what perfectly legal activity (s)he may or may not allow inside a building (s)he owns? If a tavern owner chooses to allow smoking and you don't want to be exposed to it, DON'T GO IN. And by the way, I have yet to see any research linking bartenders and cocktail servers with higher incidences of lung cancer.

  5. Gotta' tell you, I have had enough of this. OK, smoking is bad. We all know this. But please don't push your beliefs on me. The smoking issue reminds me of a faith issue. Everyone has an opinion and wants me to join the cause.

    As far as Dotty's, In 1995 the gaming commission thought it was good idea and gave them their blessing. Station Casinos should have came down off their high horse and took care of the guests properly when they had them. It's called customer service. I played at Sunset for years, held a President card, and was never greeted or treated as valued guest. They lost my business. Now they are scrambling with corporation changes, advertising campaigns, new employees, etc.
    Gaming is our industry and they hold the cards, much like the steel industry did in Pennsylvania where I grew up. No difference.
    The public can spend their money anywhere they please. Retail, dining, gas, food, and gaming. Let the public make the choice, and allow the small business owners to thrive.
    One last thought: Are you calling Station Casinos "Big Gaming"?...

  6. Mr Coolican, How about using your podium in the coming months to list all the NON-smoking taverns. According to you, and many commenters, their business would increase. You could do an investigative series with real data comparing 2 taverns. Problem is, I'd bet not one chooses to remain non-smoking.

  7. REAL Question: How many voters, vote INFORMED?

    Then, once laws are enacted, do they follow up to see outcomes?

    The lack of REAL CONCERN, REAL INVOLVEMENT by NEVADA CITIZEN VOTERS is what is empowering an out of control government and business lobbyists/special interests.

  8. "i guess people have a right to smoke.i just dont want it in my all can go outside and puff.when your done inhaling all of those toxins with your smoking ilk you can come back inside"

    dodgerchuck -- pay attention, you only get to make those rules if it's your property. Otherwise it's just another unlawful law standing on the tyranny of the herd.

    "And a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke." -- Rudyard Kipling "The Betrothed"

  9. Nanny state in action. I'm proud that Nevada doesn't bend to the will of a fanatic minority. If you don't want to smell smoke, don't frequent the establishment. Simple!

  10. If it is true that jobs in taverns that will allow smoking under this bill pay roughly the same as jobs at similar businesses that will not or can not allow smoking, then I would speculate that some kind of job exchange program could be set up and there would be more than enough people who don't mind working in a smoking environment to trade with those who object to it.

    In addition to the above to answer some of the critics, taverns could also declare themselves to be private clubs and charge a nominal membership fee to bolster the argument that they are not public areas. This same approach is commonly used in states with strict alcohol laws and is quite workable.

  11. Dotty's has a large loyal customer base. They appreciate their customers-always have, always will.Each location has a sort of "Cheers" feel to it.Most people who frequent my favorite location have lived in the area for many years & knew eachother outside of Dotty's.The customers are so nice to eachother & the employees are awesome....

  12. I smoke cigarettes, cigars, and pork butts in my back yard and almost always have a glass of Scotch in my hand while doing so. You got a problem with that? (And yes, the BBQ is wood fired, so my carbon footprint pretty much sucks on that.)