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Tavern owners seek to reinstate eating rights to adult smokers

Smoking and anti-smoking forces are girding their loins for the resumption of warfare. Think Mel Gibson in “Braveheart.”

The dispute du jour: Should a smoker have the right to a cheeseburger in a tavern? Or does the harm of secondhand smoke to a food server trump a smoker’s hunger?

The Nevada Tavern Owners Association is taking the lead to change the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act so that food can be served in a smoking area limited to patrons over the age of 21.

The Clean Indoor Air Act was approved by voters in 2006 as Question 5, and tavern owners will tell you that it has killed much of their business. (Anti-smoking forces dispute that, saying the economy is the cause.) Many bar owners closed their kitchens so that people could have a drink, smoke and gamble in their taverns.

Tavern owners aren’t trying for a full repeal of the law banning smoking where food is served. Instead, they want to make changes so that in taverns where someone is already in the smoking section of a bar, that someone could get food service.

Taverns that already have segregated their restaurants from their bars would continue serving burgers and fries to Dad and the kids on the restaurant side. Sean Higgins, lobbyist for the tavern owners, said there is no move to change that aspect of the law. “Taverns are simply saying if you have a smoking area limited to persons over the age of 21, you should be able to serve food.”

That doesn’t seem horribly unreasonable, especially because the smoker is already in a smoking area restricted to adults.

But Amy Beaulieu of the American Lung Association in Nevada and spokeswoman for the Nevada Tobacco Prevention Coalition, said the coalition of 30 to 40 groups will oppose the tavern owners aggressively to protect the health and well-being of food servers exposed to secondhand smoke. “The surgeon general says there is no safe exposure to second-hand smoke and that everyone deserves a safe place to work,” she said.

The taverns that closed their kitchens — and Higgins is trying to get those numbers — each ended up firing eight to 10 kitchen workers. “We certainly think this is an issue that will actually put people back to work by reopening kitchens,” Higgins said.

Is it better to have a job where you’re exposed to secondhand smoke or no job at all?

Higgins said he is working with a couple of legislators (he declined to name them, because this is such a contentious issue) to try to get the language changed.

During the Dotty’s dispute, one reason the tavern owners decided to back the new tavern definition sought by the Nevada Resort Association is that the association, along with Station Casinos, said they would back the tavern owners in their fight to have food service for smokers.

There are two bills involving smoking already before the Legislature. Both are anti-smoking bills. Assembly Bill 128 establishes smoke-free college campuses, and Senate Bill 53 is about child care licensing. But bills have been known to turn upside down.

Gaming types say the issue will be presented as allowing adults to make their own choices. It’s no longer about protecting children as it was in 2006.

If people can smoke, gamble and drink in a bar, they should be able to have some food to soak up the booze. Driving drunk is a health issue too, both for the driver and the DUI victim.

As a nonsmoker, I’m torn. I love the smoking ban. But there is a question of fairness.

Until casinos are made smoke-free instead of being exempted from the Clean Indoor Air Act, then it seems only fair that taverns should be able to sell food to smokers.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.

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