No Smoking Please …….

The good people of Nevada , as in many other places, have long struggled with what to do about  the problem of smoking in public places…  Having seen fairly draconian bans imposed in cities as far afield as New York and Dublin – those seeking a ban here, lead by heart and cancer charities  swung into action in 2006.

Now let me put my cards firmly on the table right from the start – I am not and never have been a smoker. I don’t say that with any sense of smugness or superiority, it’s just something that has never remotely appealed to me. I would much rather people didn’t smoke in confined spaces – but I’m not a Nazi about it like some. I have to admit that when I first arrived here a couple of years ago – I was a little  surprised  at some of the places that smoking was actually allowed. Amongst the most bizarre (to me) was smoking within grocery stores. The vast majority of the major chain grocery stores here in Las Vegas (Smiths, Albertsons and Vons) have an area – usually just inside the door – where slot and video poker machines are set up, presumably providing a steady income stream, and there lies the rub – most of those who play these machines are smokers ! This meant that on many occasions you entered these stores via a fug of smoke , sometimes not too far away from the fresh produce !

Those opposed to smoking launched their ballot initiative to be voted on in November 2006 by proposing a new law entitled “The Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act”. This sought a ban in the vast majority of  indoor areas that the public has access to, covering  the more obvious places such as schools, public buildings and child-care facilities as well as finally bringing restaurants,  grocery and convenience stores within it’s remit. somewhat controversially it also sought to include bars and taverns that served food – thus ensuring that a battle-royal would be fought. It is often said that he who pays the piper calls the tune, and here in Nevada that is very firmly the gaming industry. Amongst the exceptions within the proposed new law where smoking WOULD be permitted were casino floors, the argument being that no-one under the age of 21 was allowed there anyway….. Curiously brothels and strip-clubs were also to be exempt.

There are a couple of problems with  this. First – although children might seem to be being protected here, what about the rest of us ? Second – many casinos have deliberately designed their layout so as to force you across their main gaming floors as you make your way to your hotel room. (presumably in the vain hope that you would stop by one of the tables en route – whilst heavily laden with bags and offspring !) giving children no way of avoiding fighting their way through the smoke.

Almost immediately a rival group opposed to the provisions of this proposed new law was formed and sought to cast a spanner into the works (spanner is what we Brits call a wrench in case any of you this side of the water were wondering !). They were lead not surprisingly by those who stood to loose money should this initiative pass – amongst them the owners of bars and taverns, and convenience stores where hitherto unfettered smoking was the norm. Now whilst I feel that there is no excuse for smoking in any kind of retail premises, I do have a degree of sympathy for bar owners. Those who argue that it worked OK in places like New York really miss the point here…. I cannot think of a bar or tavern in this city that I’ve frequented – and there have been quite a few – that didn’t have video poker machines embedded within it’s counters. Rightly or wrongly their owners had come to depend upon income from them, and I have to say that almost every time I’ve seen them being used – the person was smoking.

There must  be a recklessness gene somewhere, such is the correlation between those who both gamble and smoke ! My parent’s generation might be forgiven for not having been aware that smoking was so hazardous to their health, but in 2008 there surely cannot be a person alive in this country that doesn’t  fully understand the risks they are subjecting themselves to. Health warnings on packs have become so “in-your-face” that I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find them emblazoned with the word “DEATH !” in large type on them, or with a graphic image of damaged lungs of the kind that you see when a bullet penetrates someone’s body in the TV show CSI !

The group opposed to the ban were rather dishonest and disingenuous from the start – choosing to name their group “The Smoke Free Coalition”. They were nothing of the kind. A more accurate name would have been “The Keep Right On Smoking Coalition” ! The thrust of their initiative was that we should protect children whilst not impinging on the rights of those adults wishing to smoke (presumably within their bars or convenience stores whilst gambling) – but even here they shot themselves in the foot.

Under existing laws if a childcare facility had more than 6 children, smoking was not allowed – yet under their proposal this number would have risen to 12 ! Very child friendly……..

On November 7th 2006 the people spoke, and the Nevada Clean Air Act passed – much to the surprise of many commentators – in a narrow 54 to 46% vote (The Smoke Free Coalition’s proposal failing by 48 – 52%). The gaming industry as a whole had weighed in against the Act – probably in an attempt to forestall the extension of the ban to their casino floors. A friend of mine told me that much of their revenue comes from high rollers from the far east – where smoking is the norm, so they are understandably loathe to see this first foot-in-the-door.

I wish I could report that bars and taverns here were now entirely smoke free, but there is a rebellious streak that runs  through the people of this city. Whilst the vast majority of the visitors here comply with the new law –  locals in many cases just completely disregard it ! For a while after it’s passage, some bars were still leaving smoking paraphernalia on counter tops – matchbooks and ashtrays were still on prominent display, but a number of well publicised prosecutions soon put pay to this… Unfortunately this hasn’t stopped determined video poker players from lighting up – putting bartenders in an almost impossible position. Of course the ban in taverns only applied to those that served food – which is most of them it has to be admitted. Some reacted in a knee-jerk way by simply closing their kitchens ! A bar close to where I work did this – but on a day shortly after the ban went into force, it was practically deserted – where were all these smokers who would otherwise have boycotted the premises ?

Since then they have done something that I’ve seen replicated in a number of other places here – and that must have had their lawyers working overtime….. They do now serve food – but in polystyrene containers and with plastic knives and forks ! In this way I’m sure counsel has advised them that TECHNICALLY they are serving take-out food that the customer has simply chosen of their own volition to eat at the bar ! I’m just waiting for the first prosecution that tests this…..

I have to say that had those opposed to the ban been a deal more honest – emphasizing the potential job losses when kitchens would be closed, and the parlous financial situation they might find themselves in, rather than attempting to pull the wool over our eyes as the protectors of children’s health (and everyone else be damned), they might have had more success. For now, the law is as stands and I look forward to people getting used to it and obeying it over time, but for now will just smile indulgently at those who so brazenly flout it.

On a recent trip home to London I experienced the much more draconian ban in place there with ALL pubs  being smoke free – food or no food, and I have to tell you it was a much more pleasant experience for it. Brits seem to be way more law-abiding than their Las Vegas counterparts, and the letter of the law is scrupulously obeyed. Perhaps we will get there eventually !

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