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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

McCarran to clear the air

6 December 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- As operators of bars and other small slot machine venues consider challenging last month's voter-approved smoking restrictions, one slot machine outlet isn't waiting around for a second opinion.

McCarran International Airport will become entirely smoke-free by Friday - a dramatic transformation for the smoker-friendly airport that will now join a growing number of major U.S. airports that have banned smoking indoors.

McCarran officials said they plan to eliminate the more than one dozen smoking lounges inside the airport, and the company that operates the airport's food and beverage outlets plans to enforce a smoking ban in the handful of restaurant bars that have allowed smoking.

Question 5, the statewide voter initiative that passed easily on Nov. 7 and goes into effect Friday, bans smoking in government buildings and other public places but exempts casino floors and stand-alone slot bars that don't serve food.

"Being that we're a public entity, we are going with the strictest interpretation," Clark County Aviation Deputy Director Rosemary Vassiliadis said.

After payroll costs, license taxes and other fees, Clark County's Aviation Department nets just over 60 percent of the revenue generated by McCarran's 1,300 slot machines, which are operated by a company owned by casino boss Michael Gaughan. For the 12 months ended June 30, the latest data available, the department received $37.6 million from slots.

McCarran is awaiting an opinion from the district attorney's office on whether gaming areas within the airport such as smoking lounges with slots are exempt from the ban, although that isn't likely, she said. Similarly, it's not likely that an exemption would extend to airport restaurants with bars, which would probably be required to fully enclose the bar as a separate business from the restaurant and stop serving food before an exemption could be considered, she said.

But it's a moot issue, since the airport concessionaire that operates restaurants has decided to ban smoking, period.

Airport officials aren't relishing the change. In the early 1990s, McCarran briefly opted to ban smoking everywhere.

The move was "disastrous," Vassiliadis said.

"Unfortunately, smokers smoke," she said. "They were sneaking into bathrooms, sneaking into secure areas ¦ It got to the point where the custodians were saying, 'Please put the smoking rooms back in.' "

Betty Bauerle, general manager of McCarran's food and beverage concessionaire HMS Host, said she has been gearing up for the ban.

"I'm not sure whether it will affect business one way or the other," said Bauerle, a smoker. "There are many nonsmoking airports and customers learn to adapt."

Retiree Henry Sellers, who travels with his wife to Las Vegas several times a year to gamble, said removing designated areas for smokers is discriminatory and will backfire.

"It's not unusual to get stuck in the airport for several hours," said Sellers, who smoked and played slots in one of McCarran's many smoking lounges while waiting for a flight to Oklahoma City. "I know that smoking is wrong and that people who smoke need to quit, but that doesn't mean they will," he said. "A smoker is not going to go eight hours without a cigarette."

Airports once fought smoking bans, but in recent years many have embraced them as a way to extract more revenue by leasing spaces once occupied by smoking lounges to income-producing businesses, and saving money on cleanup and maintenance costs.

Opponents of the ban in Nevada say the state's economy is driven by revenue from slot machines - and that much of that money comes from smokers who light up when they gamble. Removing the ability to smoke jeopardizes that revenue, they say. Some observers also say the ban will create an enforcement problem for the Southern Nevada Health District, which is already charged with enforcing existing smoking bans in public areas.

But Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, a Berkeley, Calif.-based group that lobbies for smoking bans, says airports, like other public areas that have gone smoke-free in recent years, see the benefits of accommodating the majority of the public who don't smoke. Airports also are concerned about the health of their customers and workers, who aren't protected from smoke wafting from doorless smoking lounges and bars, said Bronson Frick, associate director of the group.

"A majority of people live in areas where smoke-free air is the status quo," he said.

More than 60 airports around the country, including those serving Los Angeles, Dallas and New York, are entirely smoke-free indoors as a result of a change in law or voluntary action.

Vassiliadis said the airport is working on creating designated outdoor smoking areas near key entrances and exits. As in other airports with smoking bans, smokers who have already passed through security won't be able to walk outside to light up, she said.

Some major airports still have smoking lounges, including Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, one of the nation's busiest.

So does Sellers' hometown airport in Oklahoma City, where designated smoking areas coexist with a statewide ban on smoking in most areas.

"Most smokers have that much courtesy" not to smoke near nonsmokers, Sellers said. "But to completely take designated areas away from them is wrong."