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To Smoke Or Not To Smoke In Casinos

<p>A woman smokes while sitting at a slot machine in Atlantic City. The city tried to ban smoking in casinos in 2008 but rescinded it.</p>
Associated Press

A woman smokes while sitting at a slot machine in Atlantic City. The city tried to ban smoking in casinos in 2008 but rescinded it.

More than a decade ago, Nevadans voted to strengthen indoor smoking laws. It was a huge change for a state that touts itself as live and let live.

But these days, smokers are as rare as stars on a cloudy night. Roughly 13 percent of American adults are smokers.

Does it follow that Nevada should make smoking laws tougher? Ban smoking completely in bars? One bar has done it in Las Vegas and has said it improved business.

The Sand Dollar Lounge became smoke-free in January. Nathan Grates is the co-owner of the lounge. He said they haven't seen an impact on their bottom line.

He and his business partner decided to make the change after feedback from customers and concerns about the health of their workers.

The bar initially moved to smoke-free during a special pop-up bar experience during the holidays. When that trial period was over, Grates said the reaction was clear.

"Overall the feedback from a lot of our guests was a resounding, 'Thank You!'" he said, "We decided to stick with it going into the new year."

Grates said they had a patron ask about the ban and then leave because she couldn't smoke, but just a few minutes later, six people walked in, asked about the ban and decided to stay because there wouldn't be smoking.

What was once a smoke-filled bar featuring blues musicians from around the country is now a cleaner aired bar with blues musicians.

"It feels like you can see across the bar without issue," he said.

Bronson Frick is the associate director of Americans for Non-Smokers Rights, a group that has pushed for smoke-free environments since the 70s.

Frick is not surprised that the Sand Dollar Lounge hasn't lost any business since going smoke-free.

He said it is a common concern in the hospitality industry when smoke bans are considered but he pointed out there are many cities with bans on indoor smoking, including New Orleans, and they're doing fine.

"More communities are protecting the health of what we call the cultural economy, the hospitality workforce that makes a place such an amazing place to visit and to work," he said.

Frick pointed out that although casinos in Las Vegas allow smoking, casino companies own dozens of smoke-free properties around the world.

Frick said if Nevada lawmakers were to ban smoking everywhere the level playing field would make it so not one casino or bar would see a dip in their bottom line.

"The benefit for operators is that they're covered the same as their competition, same as bars, everyone has that same playing field, but more importantly it creates the level playing field of health for the region's hospitality workforce," he said.

While some businesses are concerned about the impact on their balance sheets, Malcolm Ahlo, the tobacco prevention and control coordinator with the Southern Nevada Health District, is concerned about the health of workers and customers.

Ahlo said there is no known safe level of second-hand smoke and a recent survey by UNLV Institute for Children's Research and Policy showed that almost 83.8 percent of casino workers are exposed to second-hand smoke.

"That's a very, very high and alarming number that we think the casino industry should take a look at," he said, "That's almost 90 percent of people are exposed to second-hand smoke that work in a casino."

Ahlo said smoking is trending down with fewer and fewer people actually smoking. He thinks most people in Nevada would support a smoke-free movement.

The Nevada Resort Association sent the following statement:

Nevada Resort Association members are in full compliance with the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act and offer a wide range of non-smoking amenities, including hotels, resort lobbies, bars and restaurants, casino areas, entertainment venues, shopping malls and retail establishments, spas, fitness centers and meeting spaces.  As more guests seek out non-gaming amenities and attractions, the majority of the industry’s workforce is found in these non-smoking areas. Where allowed by law on the gaming floor, our members cater to the diversity of our guests’ preferences by offering both non-smoking and smoking environments.

To maintain a great work environment and a world-class customer experience, our members invest heavily in advanced technology throughout their properties that circulates fresh air and removes smoke and odors. From specialized ventilation and filtration systems to air-handling units located at table games and the bases of gaming devices, the industry continues to utilize the latest innovations to provide improved air quality for our employees and guests.

Bronson Frick, associate director, Americans for Non-Smokers Rights; Nathan Grates, co-owner, Sand Dollar Lounge; Malcolm Ahlo, tobacco prevention and control coordinator, Southern Nevada Health District

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.