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Originally published Sunday, July 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Breathing Las Vegas: A smoke-sensitive tourist on a statewide smoking ban

After getting sick on her last Las Vegas sojourn, a smoke-sensitive tourist bets her scarred lungs (and psyche) on a statewide smoking ban and high-tech casino-ventilation systems.

Special to The Seattle Times

Watch out for butts!

EVEN IF YOU CAN AVOID smoky casinos and hotels in Las Vegas, you are not home free. Smoking is still allowed in lots of places, and even where it's not, some people somehow totally miss all those no-smoking signs. As every gambler knows, you've got to know when to hold ... your breath.

Nevada's Clean Indoor Air Act, you might guess, does not apply outdoors. Smokers crowd the sidewalks, and you can't walk a mile without running into a Camel. Especially watch the strip of the Strip around Casino Royale and O'Shea's, where smoke clouds roll out the casino doors.

The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace seemed especially smoky, perhaps because at least one woman was strolling through the nonsmoking mall with a smoke and a smile.

McCarran International Airport is totally nonsmoking now, but the glass walls of the old designated-smoking slot areas remain. Apparently this is confusing; in at least two machines, cigarettes were freshly ground into the coin trays.

All Vegas restaurants are nonsmoking, too, unless you're in the bathroom at the Planet Hollywood restaurant in Caesars, where a woman with a British accent just couldn't make it through lunch without a puff.

After you leave baggage claim at the airport, you'll see a designated smoking area outside. It means nothing; tons of people smoke in the serpentine taxi line, too.

Smoking is still allowed in cabs. We turned down one stinky smoke-mobile, then bestowed our grateful gratuity to a driver who posted a "thank you for not smoking" sign in his shiny-clean ride.

I'm joking here, but still ... Vegas shows are nonsmoking — unless you see "Phantom" at the Venetian. No cigarettes, mind you, but enough pyro and fireworks action to choke a chorus line, especially if you sit near the stage. No wonder he wears that mask.

— Sandy Dunham,

Special to The Seattle Times

I have what you might call a sensitive nose. (My family calls it freakish.) Either way, I smell things most people don't. Even tiny doses of perfume, flowers or chemical fumes are overwhelming, but nothing more so than smoke. At a stoplight, I can detect a single cigarette three cars away ... with the windows up. Since I also have allergies and asthma, this super-sense of sniff comes in handy for avoidance purposes (stogie at 2 o'clock!), but it's not so fun when there's no escape.

So naturally, I am thrilled by our state smoking ban (sorry, Marlboro dudes). I'm so spoiled now, breathing and eating in the same place, I actually started to think smoking had grown passé.

Then I went back to Las Vegas.

I had been scared away for five years. That time, Lady Luck had shunned my lungs, and I landed in an urgent-care clinic one day, and an emergency room the next. And sadly, what happened in Vegas did not stay in Vegas: I hobbled home with walking pneumonia, and spent three weeks taking steroids, nebulizer treatments and even an occasional breath.

Perhaps you can imagine how excited I was to return.

But this time, lured anew by the prospect of sunshine, giant jackpots and four days with five of my favorite women, I thought maybe I could put together a smoke-free Vegas vacation. Hey, I reasoned — if Atlantic City can agree to clear the casino air, maybe the nonsmoking craze had infiltrated The Strip, too!

Right. And Siegfried and Roy have a crush on me.

But there has been progress.

Gambling on clean air

In November 2006, Nevada voters passed the Clean Indoor Air Act, banning smoking in restaurants, bars that serve food and public spaces like malls — basically, everywhere indoors except casino floors, bars that don't serve food and brothels. As a result, McCarran International Airport did away with its indoor smoking areas, said Jeremy Handel, of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, and most showrooms have been smoke-free even longer.

A handful of hotels are now smoke-free, too, including The Westin Casuarina (which allows smoking in its casino), Renaissance Las Vegas Hotel, Hotel Las Vegas Platinum Suites and the new Trump International Hotel and Tower.

We stayed at The Signature at MGM Grand — a lovely nonsmoking, nongaming, three-tower hotel a tiny bit off the beaten Strip (ironically, its driveway is directly across the street from the clinic where I "stayed" five years ago). It is literally an oasis of fresh air.

The Signature's first tower opened in May 2006, ahead of the clean-air law.

"When we started The Signature, we truly believed that was the direction that everybody would go one day," said Frederic Luvisutto, the hotel's vice president. "We think it's the future of Las Vegas. It smells good and feels good, and smoking goes against that."

Cleaning up the casinos

In the casino realm, though, gambling and smoke go together like showgirls and sequins. And while Luvisutto predicts "it's only a matter of time" before Vegas casinos adopt their own smoking ban, in the meantime they're concentrating on protecting the health of their employees — and their customers.

For example, all poker rooms in the 10 MGM-Mirage hotels — running the gambling gamut from Bellagio to Circus Circus — are nonsmoking, said Cindy Ortega, MGM-Mirage's senior vice president of energy and environmental services. "They were the first in the city, and we had assumed people were going to complain, but there were not any complaints registered at all," she said.

The company also emphasizes "pathing," so nonsmokers can go around, rather than through, casino floors, Ortega said. And at Bellagio, they're testing a system called Air Rail that creates an "air curtain" through the gaming table to shield the dealer from smoke. "There are little slots, almost like a coin slot on a vending machine, and an air system underneath the table, and air comes up through those slots," Ortega said.

In addition, Handel said, a lot of casinos will let gamblers request that their gaming table be designated nonsmoking if all the players play along. And, he said, "The air-filtration systems in the newer properties are some of the best in the world."

One of the best of the best, said Ortega, is Bellagio, where the casino air is "turned" 12 times an hour. "National studies have shown the air in the casino is many times cleaner than the outside air," she said.

Breathe easy

Sounds promising, but the proof is in the proboscis. So I inhaled some of the Strip's newer casinos (Handel specifically mentioned the Wynn Las Vegas, Bellagio, Palazzo Las Vegas, the Venetian and Mandalay Bay), along with some old standbys for comparison.

But no matter where you go, in general, if you're trying to sidestep casino smoke, some common-sense rules apply:

• Gamble early in the day (but not so early that you're meeting up with the all-night partiers).

• Avoid crowded Sports Book areas and gaming tables.

• Linger near the casino doors and edges.

• Leave! At Paris one sunny afternoon, I found refuge in an outdoor bar (and a gigantic Eiffel Tower of piña colada) while the sturdier gals gambled.

Who's really smokin'?

That said, here is my completely nonscientific scent-o-smoke scale, from 1 cigarette (quite tolerable) to 5 (Run away! Run away!):

(4 cigs) MGM Grand: We approached the casino from the shops — and were stopped by a sudden, unmistakable wall of smoke about 100 feet from the entrance. We turned around.

(2 cigs) Wynn Las Vegas: Not bad at all around the casino edges, though it did thicken deeper in. Blasts of fresh air from the restaurants lining the perimeter give you a little breathing room, and my mom and aunts said they felt mysterious but welcome "puffs" of refreshing air at their slot machines every now and then.

(1 cig) The Palazzo Las Vegas: There's a good sign, literally, at the casino entrance: "The Palazzo offers a smoke-free corridor." That would be the "pathing" concept, although the whole casino was one of the best we sniffed, especially the section near CarneVino restaurant — until, of all the places she could have alit, a lady and her burning butt plopped on the slot-machine stool right next to us.

(2 cigs) Mandalay Bay: This whole hotel smells like tropical coconut, which means the casino smells like ... tropical coconut smoke. Not overwhelming, but obvious.

(5 cigs) Excalibur: Technically, we didn't even go in the casino: The air reeked from the moment we got off the tram at the nonsmoking station — and that was outside.

(2 ½ cigs) New York-New York: We were here only long enough to hit the Krispy Kreme along the edges (Hey! It's a city of vices!), but the casino was high-ceilinged and airy and not too stinky.

(3 cigs) Paris: Surprisingly, the smoke hit as soon as the door opened. But once you're past the casino and into the shops and restaurants, it's tres belle.

(5 cigs) Caesars Palace: Et tu, Vegas landmark? This was the worst casino of all, even at 11 a.m., and it got worse the closer we got to the Sports Book. Even sections of the Forum Shops stank. Literally, I mean.

(2 ½ cigs) The Venetian: Amazingly, even at 10 on a Friday night, this wasn't bad. It seemed as if clean air blew in the casino entrance every time the doors opened, and the adjacent lobby area was fresh and pretty.

(1 cig) Bellagio: Another winner. Figuratively, of course. But it was pleasant enough that we sat down for a spell and "donated" some dough to its high-tech air-filtration system.

The tobacco wrap-up

Some things you just have to deal with: Until there's a total smoking ban, no casino will be totally smoke-free, and there is no way they can be expected to completely eliminate the smell (or the dangers) of smoke. But some casinos are tolerable, even to us supersensitive sorts, so I consider myself lucky on several levels:

• I never had to wash that nasty residual smoke smell out of my hair or clothes.

• I never had to visit a medical facility or use my inhaler.

• I was not one of the hordes of hacking hackers in the Departures line at the airport.

• And I no longer fear Las Vegas. Except for maybe Siegfried and Roy.

Sandy Dunham is a desk editor at The Seattle Times: sdunham@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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