Nevada Smith: Finding an oasis in the Silver State

TONOPAH -- The refreshingly remodeled Mizpah is a non-smoking hotel set in the middle of the Silver State, which, as you know, takes its name from the cumulus cloud of cigarette exhalent created by a population of the nation’s most prolific puffers.

Under a new ownership, these days the Mizpah has innumerable virtues. But I’ll save a review of the remarkable place for another day.

Far before its polished bar and Victorian stylings, even before its brass beds and claw-foot bathtubs, surely the first thing a visitor to the historic hotel will notice is its atmosphere free of cigarette smoke. It’s a reminder that clean indoor air, a common occurrence elsewhere in the nation and much of Western Europe, remains as rare as a two-headed cow in Nevada.

There are reasons for this, I suppose.

Some will link the proliferation of noxious fog to the great myth of our libertarian beginnings as a territory and state. To hear them tell it, Nevada babies exited the womb pulling themselves up by their bootstraps with a shot of whiskey in one hand and a smoldering stogie in the other. In those halcyon days before all the foreigners invaded, Nevada’s newborns pitched dice at 6 months, learned to ride bareback at 1 year and could put in a shift swinging a single jack well before kindergarten.

To those of libertarian philosophy, and especially those libertarians addicted to nicotine, smoking is a right. It’s in the Constitution somewhere. And heaven help the man who tries to rob them of their rights.

You’ll take away their right to smoke when you tear the pack of cigarettes from their cold, dead hands. Which, given the available statistics, occurs much earlier for smokers than for non-smokers.

Others will blame those damnable Californians for all this no-smoking nonsense. Nevadans accustomed to a nicotine fog just wish they’d mind their own business and leave us to our own devices.

Of course, a few skeptics will size up Nevada’s intriguing tradition of promoting smoking -– until relatively recently we allowed the activity to occur in grocery stores, for crying out loud -– and wonder whether it doesn’t have something to do with the enormous political clout held by the state’s gambling and liquor interests. Surveys show a majority of residents want smoke-free public spaces. Chances are good they’ll be waiting a long, long time.

Back in November 2006, Nevada voters approved the enabling language that for the first time called for a change in the atmosphere in bars, restaurants and even casinos. After much wrangling, the constitutionality of the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act was upheld in 2011 by the State Supreme Court, but by then it had become clear there wasn’t a great interest in enforcing the law. Bars and restaurants with slot machines complained of losing valuable smoking slot customers to the casinos, and not even the Clark County Health Department had the staff or energy to play cigarette cop at local saloons that served sandwiches.

A few places made the transition and managed to successfully segregate -– at no small expense –- the drinking and smoking part of their establishment from the restaurant area. Others dropped the pretense of following the law and returned to the hazy past.

Meanwhile, days and weeks turn to months and years, and the rest of the country evolves from a land where filling a room with dangerous cigarette smoke was somehow perceived as a right. Using medical science and decades of anecdotal evidence, some professionals now actually believe secondhand smoke causes approximately 46,000 deaths a year in the United States.

In case you’re wondering, that statistic comes from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

And they’re not even based in California.