Anti-smoking law fine as it is

Senate Bill 372 would severely weaken the voter-approved Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act, which prohibits smoking in restaurants, supermarkets and bars that serve food. It should be defeated for at least four reasons.

1. The act improves public health by reducing exposure to secondhand smoke, which is toxic and can cause cancer, as well as asthma, heart disease and other health problems.

Most discussions of the act have focused on its effects on business owners and customers, but as the Reno News & Review noted last week, employees should be considered as well. After all, employees tend to endure more extended exposure to secondhand smoke than customers.

The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention report that laws such as Nevada's improve public health. "Studies conducted in several communities, states, regions and countries have found that implementing smoke-free laws is associated with rapid and substantial reductions in hospital heart attack admissions," the CDC reports. "These reductions appear to be more pronounced among nonsmokers than among smokers."

2. Bar owners are leading the charge to gut the act on grounds that they have lost business because of the restrictions. But while they may be able to offer anecdotal evidence of some customers who stopped coming to their establishments because of the smoking restrictions, their arguments don't hold up in the bigger picture.

A UNLV study released this week says 10 years of economic data do not support the bar owners' claims. In fact, the study says, the bars started seeing a decline in business before the smoking law took effect, and that the current recession is the biggest factor in their economic well-being.

But the bar owners have another problem. They contend that the act creates an unlevel playing field by exempting casinos.

This is, generally speaking, true. But if the casinos have such an advantage, you would think they'd be doing great business right now, which they are not. Why? Because of the global recession.

"If they are alleging an unlevel playing field has hurt them, there has to be somebody who is benefiting from that playing field, and that would be the gaming companies," says Michael Hackett, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society and Nevada State Medical Association. "But look at what has happened to the gaming companies. Gaming revenues are on a steady decline. They are not benefiting at all from the unlevel playing field."

3. Most of the press coverage of SB372 has focused on the part of the bill that would create a new classification of "adult saloon" where food could be served if minors are not allowed on the premises. But while this provision might be palatable to a lot of people, the bill contains other provisions that would all but eviscerate the act.

Most egregiously, the bill would shift regulatory power from local health agencies to the state. This is an age-old tactic to weaken regulation and enforcement. Especially today, with the state facing a $3 billion budget deficit, this could all but eliminate enforcement of the act.

Is the state going to allocate staff and funds to enforce the proposed new regulation excluding minors from "adult" bars that serve food?

Besides, Hackett wonders, "what does this have to do with the economic inequity the bars are talking about? It has nothing to do with it, so why take out local control?"

The answer is that proponents of weakening the act have more on their minds than simply allowing food to be served in bars. They want to shoot as many holes in the act as they can squeeze into the bill.

4. Most importantly, this bill is an end-around on the voters. Fifty-four percent of Nevada voters approved the measure in 2006, sending a clear message that they want stricter anti-smoking rules. Now special interests are using the legislative process to try to subvert the people's wishes.

Maria Azzarelli, tobacco control coordinator for the Southern Nevada Health District, says most of the feedback she hears is supportive of maintaining the act. "We have heard from hundreds of very upset citizens who are extremely vocal about Senate Bill 372," she says. "The public outcry has been tremendous. They are not in favor of weakening the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act."

Hackett says that if SB372 passes, it will violate the spirit of the initiative process that created the act. "If they are successful in doing this, why would anybody run an initiative to change a statute again, knowing an interest group can go to the Legislature to nullify it two or three years down the road?" he asks.

If the bar owners want to modify the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act, the proper method would be to draft a petition and gather enough signatures to place a question on the 2010 ballot. The only reason this isn't happening is they believe they have a better chance of getting what they want by deploying their lobbyists in Carson City.

Nevada lawmakers, who have more than enough problems to deal with this session, shouldn't allow themselves to be used in this way.

Geoff Schumacher ( is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday. Check out his blog at