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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Having a smoke and playing, too

9 June 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Check out Sharon Cottrell's cigarette.

It's not, really. And it gets her around Nevada's no-smoking laws.

The thing she's holding between her fingers and drawing to her mouth looks like a pen. It's got a battery. And that's not smoke but what's left of water vapor that carries nicotine from a cartridge into the user's lungs.

Faux cigarettes are now showing up across Las Vegas.

"It's awesome," Cottrell said of her skinny little nicotine machine. "There are all these places where you can't smoke. I'm getting what I need from the nicotine. I like being able to 'smoke' in my home and in my car without having the smoke smell."

Cottrell bought her device, called NJOY, at JJ's Tavern, one of 36 Las Vegas-area taverns, including PTs and Sierra Gold, that are owned by Golden Gaming and are pushing the devices.

More than half of Golden's taverns have gone smoke-free since a voter-supported smoking ban took effect in December 2006.

For Golden, NJOY is a way to keep smokers legally in its nonsmoking bars.

Dragging on the device beats stepping outside a bar on a 100-degree day to smoke a real cigarette, said Christopher Abraham, vice president of marketing for Golden Gaming.

Abraham said the devices are "selling like hotcakes" at its three casinos in Colorado, where a smoking ban began in January.

Golden is selling the device for about $40 less than the product's retail price of $110, with bigger discounts for its loyalty club members. Cartridges for the device are sold separately.

The Southern Nevada Health District says NJOY complies with smoking bans but wouldn't comment on the pros and cons of the product.

NJOY was developed by patent attorneys in Scottsdale, Ariz., who saw a marketing opportunity with the spread of smoking bans across the country. Unclear are the device's potential health benefits — users aren't inhaling carcinogenic smoke — or any long-term detrimental effects of inhaling nicotine through it.

A light on the device blinks when the user has inhaled the equivalent of one cigarette or a pack of cigarettes. And though the devices are marketed as substitutes for cigarettes and not cessation devices, smokers trying to wean themselves from cigarettes can buy low-dose nicotine cartridges or even cartridges with no nicotine added.

The American Cancer Society hasn't exactly welcomed the devices: "While products such as NJOY may help someone avoid withdrawal symptoms while in a nonsmoking environment and also avoid harming nonsmokers, there are no reliable data available concerning the health effects of using NJOY and there are data which suggest that using such products may reduce a smoker's incentive to quit altogether," said Thomas J. Glynn, director of cancer science and trends for the American Cancer Society.

But Smoke-Free Gaming of Colorado Chairwoman Stephanie Steinberg, who is pushing for smoking bans in casinos nationwide, says the product has promise.

"As long as a product like this isn't harmful to other people we don't find anything negative about it," Steinberg said.

The product doesn't need approval from the Food and Drug Administration because it's not a smoking cessation device and does not claim any health benefits in its advertising.

Golden's taverns, where employees get to know their regulars over the course of years, are an invaluable test market for NJOY products, the manufacturer says.

Golden is going one step further by allowing its employees to "smoke" on the job. Bartenders who smoke can puff on an NJOY between serving drinks — satisfying their cravings as well as initiating inquisitive looks, and questions, from customers.

Derek Stemm, general manager of a nonsmoking PT's Pub on Warm Springs Road, has sold about a dozen devices to his customers.

"Every response I've gotten back has all been positive," Stemm said. "People are now taking it home with them, smoking it in their car, their house, at their desk at work. It's unbelievable."

NJOY manufacturer Sottera views Golden as the tip of the iceberg in tapping a rich vein of smokers: the ones who gamble but are threatened by the growing number of smoking bans.

The company also sells the product in casino retail shops and some retail chains nationwide.

Chief Executive Jack Leadbeater says he's in discussions with major Las Vegas casinos that are testing them with a few of their high rollers.

"They allow them to smoke on their (casino) floors but they don't want them smoking in their rooms, which is a hard thing to pull off," Leadbeater said.