CARSON CITY — Tavern owners told state legislators Monday that smokers should no longer be forced to choose between chicken fingers and cigarettes.
They said Assembly Bill 571 is the cure to what ails them — jobs and revenue lost because of the voter-approved Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act of 2006, which forced them to remodel bars to separate smoking from food service or close kitchens altogether.
The measure, which has newfound support from the Nevada Resort Association, has two weeks to clear the Democrat-controlled Legislature and reach Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who hasn’t yet said whether he would sign it. The Legislature must adjourn by June 6.
AB571 was introduced late Friday by the Assembly Ways and Means Committee and pitched by tavern owners as a way to clarify the original intent of the 2006 smoking measure by clearly exempting "stand-alone" bars, taverns and saloons from the ban if they serve food.
It also would ensure that smoking isn’t banned from places such as the Las Vegas Convention Center when smoking-related trade shows are under way, another source of frustration with the original act.
An exemption for tobacco-related conventions was added in 2009 but the American Cancer Society sued, sending the matter to court. That prompted show sponsors to select other locations.
Clarifying the law as it relates to conventions would help bring tobacco shows back to Las Vegas, said authority spokesman Vince Alberta.
"If this law gets passed, it would further clarify the law and make the lawsuit moot," Alberta said.
Ways and Means Committee members expressed mixed feelings about the bill during a two-hour hearing that didn’t include an up or down vote.
Roger Sachs, president and chairman of the Nevada Tavern Owners Association, said the 2006 law was meant to protect children and families from unwanted smoke, "not to keep adults from having some chicken fingers while smoking a cigarette."
The voter-approved act banned smoking in restaurants, grocery stores, bars that serve food and places where children are present.
It exempted casino floors, strip clubs and "stand-alone bars, taverns and saloons" in which food service is "incidental to its operation." Another provision said "incidental" food service is limited to pre-packaged food such as chips or pretzels.
During testimony Monday, tavern owners complained that while the act defines "stand-alone" taverns and "incidental" food service, the way the terms are linked in its provisions is confusing.
Blake Sartini, founder and CEO of Golden Gaming Inc., a tavern, casino and slot route company, said the proliferation of bars that serve food and offer gambling is unique to Nevada and depends in large part on allowing adult customers the choice to smoke.
"We are a unique business that exists only in Nevada, and smoking customers are essential to a healthy tavern business," Sartini said.
In addition to the tavern owners, representatives of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and R&R Partners, which represents the Nevada Resort Association, testified in support of the bill.
Michael Alonso, a lobbyist for the authority, said Las Vegas lost tobacco-related trade shows to Orlando, Fla., and New Orleans as a result of the act.
"The (authority) believes they can get some of those shows to come back," Alonso said.
Also testifying was Jeremy Aguero, a principal analyst at the Las Vegas economics research firm Applied Analysis.
Aguero said the law has cost taverns about $114 million in lost revenue and nearly 360 jobs.
Opponents from the American Lung Association, American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society testified against the bill.
"It is against the biology of our bodies to breathe in secondhand smoke," said Chris Roller of the Lung Association, who added that many food-serving bars in Las Vegas ignore the 2006 law. "I am one of dozens of people I know that will not go to these establishments in Las Vegas because they are ignoring the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act."
Chandra Mayer, a Reno mother, also testified against the bill.
She said approving AB571 would undermine the intention of voters who approved the ban.
"We voted on this. We are not sure why it is back," Mayer said. "For us moms, it seems a little underhanded."
Some lawmakers expressed skepticism toward the tavern operators’ testimony, and others seemed inclined to favor changing the law.
Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, questioned whether the smoking ban had anything to do with taverns’ lost revenue.
"Most folks over the last few years have tied that to a bad economy," Atkinson said. "This has been tied to an inability to smoke in these facilities. I’m having a hard time with that."
Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, D-Las Vegas, suggested that if the intention of the 2006 law was to ban smoking, it didn’t work and in reality seemed to have done more to make it difficult for taverns to serve food.
"They just got rid of the kitchens, and people are still smoking," Carlton said. "It was not a success in Southern Nevada."
She said tavern customers "are all adults and can make their own choices."
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@ reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.