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Best of Howard Stutz
Howard Stutz

Tavern regulars breathe easy

8 December 2006

and Jennifer Robison

NEVADA -- The lunchtime crowd at Jerseys Bar and Grill had varying opinions on how their habits would change if Question 5, the anti-smoking initiative voters approved in November, is ever enacted.

All, however, supported a judge's ruling Thursday that delayed enforcement of the law for at least two weeks.

Issac Brooks, a carpenter enjoying a meal at the bar, said he would be willing to take his cigarettes outside should the court ultimately rule in favor of the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act, which eliminates smoking where food is served.

Sheay Williamson, on the other hand, would move her business to bars without food service.

The range of sentiments all resonated with Jerseys owner Eric Arnold.

Like his fellow tavern operators statewide, Arnold is faced with a decision about how to run his business: Eliminate the kitchen or kick smokers out doors.

Arnold, who has owned the tavern with 15 slot machines in the Sahara Pavilion for almost two years, said smokers would lose out.

"We don't have a big menu, but it's a good menu and I make money on my food. So it would hurt us if I eliminate the kitchen," Arnold said.

In addition, closing food service would mean seven of Jerseys' 11 employees would have to be laid off.

"The law was poorly written and hurts businesses like myself just because we don't have more than 15 slot machines," Arnold said. "I'm competing for the same business with places that have 35 machines and will be able to allow smokers. It just isn't fair."

Throughout the valley, tavern owners expressed relief that District Judge Douglas Herndon delayed enactment of Question 5.

The judge suggested that the law could be deemed unconstitutional.

Under the law, taverns that serve food and have 15 slot machines or less have to eliminate indoor smoking.

However, taverns that have more than 15 slot machines, grandfathered in under Nevada gaming law, just have to eliminate smoking in areas where food is served.

Some tavern owners said the ruling bought two more weeks of pay for their employees.

"Businesswise, it makes sense for me to close my kitchen," said Point After Lounge owner Ron Drake. "My brain is telling me one thing, but my heart is telling me something else. How do I shut down my kitchen right before Christmas and lay off half my staff? It's heart-wrenching."

Drake said 80 percent of his revenues might be the direct result of 20 percent of his customers, big slot machine players who also like to smoke.

He said a neighboring tavern has 35 slot machines.

"Hopefully, the judge will see it's unfair and throw the whole law out," Drake said.

Geno Hill, who operates five Rum Runner locations in Las Vegas, said he was planning on closing the kitchens at the three taverns with food service.

"Our biggest argument is that nobody took into account the 20- and 35-slot machine locations," Hill said. "For now, it's just business as usual."

Frank Vento, owner of the Instant Replay Sports Pub on South Durango Drive, said he was happy to hear of the delay.

"(The temporary restraining order) gives everyone a little more time to think it through," Vento said. "We can go to our customer base and see what they think. There's hope that somehow, someway, someone will see the point and say, 'OK, people are going to lose their jobs.'"

Vento said he never planned to close his kitchen to preserve his patrons' right to smoke inside.

Rather, he would send smokers outside for a break if they needed to light up.

Vento said he and other bar-and-grill owners had discussed ordering smoking-break signs that patrons could place over their video-poker machines to reserve their spots while they're outside indulging in their habit.

They hadn't bought the signs by Thursday.

"We have to follow the law. No tavern owner is going to jeopardize their license," Vento said. "But I have to tell gamers they can't smoke. Some of them will go outside, and some will just not patronize us anymore. They're going to patronize someplace where they can smoke."

Vento said allowing customers to smoke on-site would require his bar to be a separate room with its own entrance.

He couldn't afford the remodeling, he said.

What concerns Vento most of all, though, are the 6,000 or more food-service workers that taverns across Nevada would lay off to permit smoking inside.

"They're going to lose their jobs because somebody doesn't want to play $20 in a machine sitting next to a smoker," Vento said. "Adults can make conscious decisions about whether to sit next to a smoker or not."

The judge's ruling meant McCarran International Airport decided to postpone implementing a ban on smoking that would have gone into effect today in 13 areas, mostly restaurants and bars.

Nevada's casino industry will also feel the impact of Question 5 if it is enacted.

While smoking will be allowed in gaming areas, smoking will be banned in food courts, restaurants, convention areas and adjacent public casino space.

Station Casinos spokeswoman Lori Nelson said plans had been formulated to implement nonsmoking rules at the company's Southern Nevada casinos, but were put on hold because of the judge's ruling.

"All the nonsmoking signage was delivered, but we're not going to put it out," Nelson said. "We've been working with our general managers on how to put programs in place to educate our customers."

Slot machine route operators, who manage the games at taverns and convenience stores and share in the gaming revenues, are feeling their customers' pain.

Charlie Skinner, senior vice president for United Coin Machine which operates games in about 600 locations statewide, said the company has been helping tavern owners understand the law's realities.

"We have customers who run very profitable food operations," Skinner said. "There's just too much ambiguity in the law and it's just a bad situation that wasn't thought through. This could hurt a lot of families."