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Ed Vogel

Smoking Question: Worries Over Ban Surface

7 June 2006

And Ed Vogel

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Sitting at a Red Rock Resort video poker machine Tuesday afternoon, Deloss Daniels puffed away on his cigar while hoping to hit an elusive royal flush.

When he visits a restaurant, either at Red Rock or anywhere else in Summerlin, the cigar stays in its case.

But the six-year Las Vegas resident does not believe he should be in the position to dictate to any Las Vegas visitor where they can and cannot smoke, especially when it comes to one of the valley's 131,762 guest rooms.

"I don't mind if half the rooms or three-quarters of the rooms are nonsmoking, but I don't really want to be telling anyone else what to do," Daniels said.

Nevada voters could be asked in November whether they want to ban smoking in hotel and motel rooms, restaurants, supermarkets, convenience stores and bars.

A separate business-backed initiative will allow voters to choose a less restrictive ban on smoking, including in areas of bars and restaurants where children are allowed.

Neither of the ballot questions would outlaw smoking on a casino floor.

The more restrictive measure, being proposed by Nevadans for Tobacco-Free Kids, would make Nevada the first state in the country to prohibit smoking in all hotel and motel rooms, Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights said.

Nevada now ranks as the worst state in the nation for protecting nonsmokers, said Bronson Frick, the organization's associate director. With passage of the ballot question, Nevada would be among the best states for nonsmokers rights, he said.

Most of the big casino companies are taking a wait-and-see approach to the matter.

"We have no formal position on either initiative. We'll let the voters decide which measure they prefer," said Lesley Pittman, Station Casinos' vice president of government relations.

Banning smoking in hotel rooms would give the operators of Red Rock Resort some cause for concern.

"That would be a problem for us," Pittman said. The company, which operates 3,661 hotel rooms in Southern Nevada, offers guests the choice of smoking or nonsmoking rooms.

MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman, whose company operates 10 of the Strip's largest resorts comprising 36,425 guest rooms, said hotel floors at each property are designated as nonsmoking floors. He could not give a percentage for the number of nonsmoking rooms the company operates because it varies by property.

Banning smoking in hotel rooms would be a concern to the gaming industry giant.

"I think when you reach into a private area, such as hotel rooms, you are starting down a very slippery slope," Feldman said. "The public will decide what it clearly wants, but it seems (banning smoking in guest rooms) is not something that would be very popular."

Feldman said MGM Mirage has increased the number of nonsmoking rooms it offers over the past decade. Several restaurants are nonsmoking while others provide nonsmoking sections. Designated areas of the casino floors are set aside for nonsmoking patrons.

Most of the major poker rooms in Las Vegas are now smoke-free.

Feldman said banning smoking in hotel rooms might send the wrong message.

"Las Vegas is a place about letting your hair down and being yourself in whatever form," he said.

Michael Hackett, campaign manager for Nevadans for Tobacco-Free Kids, said it was not his group's intention to include hotel and motel rooms in the ban.

But in reviewing language in the ballot question, District Judge Bill Maddox determined that a hotel or a motel is a place of business, not a private residence, and the smoking ban should apply to their rooms.

On Monday, Maddox rejected a request from gaming companies, hotels and convenience stores to remove the Nevadans for Tobacco-Free Kids' petition from the November ballot.

Sponsors of the tough anti-smoking ballot question said Tuesday they have not decided whether to appeal the decision to allow Nevada voters to decide whether to ban smoking in all hotel and motel rooms.

"It was not what we expected, but it is not going to impair our ability to go forward," Hackett said. "The ruling was a big victory for us."

Lee Haney, a spokeswoman for gaming companies, motels and hotels, convenience stores and other businesses that wanted Maddox to throw out the ballot question, said her organizations will decide within two weeks whether to appeal the decision.

But she added the ruling placing hotel and motel rooms within the smoking ban will lead voters to defeat the ballot question.

"We think people realize the economic detriment that it would cause," Haney said.

Keith Schwer, director for the center of business and economic at research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, agreed that the gaming industry could incur some added costs if smoking were banned in hotel rooms.

Studies have not been undertaken on the matter, but Schwer surmised that any customers who avoid Las Vegas because of a ban on smoking in hotel rooms would have to be replaced by nonsmoking guests.

"You're going to have spend some money to market that room to someone else and get it filled, thus, avoiding any reduction in revenue," Schwer said. "So, it seems the answer is that if you lose people because smoking is banned, it will cost you more to replace them."

Last year, the off-Strip Westin banned smoking in its public areas, including hotel rooms, the lobby, meeting areas and restaurants. Several gaming tables near the lobby went smoke-free. The move was part of a ban on smoking at more than 70 Westin hotels and resorts in North America.

David Schwartz, who coordinates UNLV's gaming studies research center, said nonsmoking hotel rooms might be a national trend that will be hard to halt.

He said he found an historical similarity from the late 1960s when smoking was banned in movie theaters. People, at the time, thought the move would make movie theaters obsolete.

"More and more, smoking is being outlawed indoors," Schwartz said.

Herbst Gaming -- a supplier of slot machines to convenience stores, bars, supermarkets and taverns -- is part of the coalition backing a ballot initiative that is less restrictive. General counsel Sean Higgins said the more stringent proposal would hurt businesses and could hamper a thriving economy.

With his brothers, Higgins operates Three Angry Wives, a tavern in the Boca Park Shopping Center near Summerlin. The restaurant portion is nonsmoking, Higgins said, but smoking is permitted in the bar, lounge and gaming areas.

"Responsible business owners will do the right things for their customers," Higgins said. "That's why we think our initiative is a more responsible approach."

Some casino patrons believe the current laws are just fine.

Gregory Hinds, who owns several homes in Las Vegas but also lives part-time in Oregon, said any smoking ban could affect his decision on where he goes to eat and gamble.

"I don't think there should be some stringent rules about smoking and drinking in Las Vegas," Hinds said while playing a video slot machine at Red Rock Resort. "This isn't the Bay Area, and it isn't San Diego."

Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority spokesman Vince Alberta said the tourism agency was not taking a position on either initiative.