By Christopher Elliott
Sunday, March 28, 2010; F02
After President Obama's negative comments about Sin City and his subsequent mea culpa ("I love Vegas -- always have!"), I realize that this might not be the most prudent way to start a column. But how do you fire up a discussion about smoking in hotels without mentioning America's capital of secondhand smoke?
Azita Arvani recently returned from a trade show in Las Vegas, where she requested a nonsmoking room at her resort. It didn't matter.
"Smoke came in through the central air conditioning units," said Arvani, a Los Angeles technology consultant. "I usually don't have any problems with hotels and smoking. Except when I go to Las Vegas."
That makes two of us. I've never been to Nevada's largest city without spending at least a few moments of every day gasping for fresh air.
And that includes my last visit in January, when I couldn't escape the cloud of carcinogens that seemed to follow me almost everywhere I went.
There's good news for nonsmoking hotel guests: The scales are about to tip in your favor this summer when Wisconsin's Act 12 takes effect, and the Badger State becomes the first in the nation to ban smoking in all hotels. Wisconsin joins a long list of other states that have, to one degree or another, limited hotel guests' lighting up. In fact, only 13 states have no smoking restrictions, according to Ryan Patrick, an analyst at MayaTech Corp. in Silver Spring who tracks state legislation for various public buildings, including hotels.
"Many hotel chains have also banned smoking at their hotels voluntarily," he said. Among them are Westin Hotels & Resorts, which became the first smoke-free brand in early 2006. Marriott followed later that year, and Sheraton Hotels & Resorts put up the "no smoking" signs in 2008.
Not everyone is happy with the limits. Some hotel owners, for example, believe that going smoke-free might hurt business. The Wisconsin Innkeepers Association, a trade group for the state's hotels, is trying to amend Act 12 to allow hotels to designate up to a quarter of their rooms as smoking.
"Customers are asking for smoking rooms," said Trisha Pugal, the association's president. "We're afraid if there are no smoking rooms, they'll go over to another state or they will smoke in the rooms, anyway."
Guests who smoke aren't likely to be pleased, either. "With any rule or regulation, someone will find a way around it," said Derek McElroy, the general manager for the Doubletree Hotel Boise Riverside in Boise, Idaho.
Here's how smokers circumvent the rules: After checking in, they light up in their rooms and flush the evidence down the toilet. Then they phone the front desk to complain about the odor of cigarette smoke, and when an employee offers to move them, they decline, saying they've already unpacked.
"However, the guest has just established that it was a previous guest who smoked in the room -- not they -- and any chance of charging the smoking fee has gone out the window," McElroy told me. "And God save the poor desk clerk who goes back in the records to back-charge the previous guest who stayed in that room."
Nonsmoking guests in adjoining quarters don't have a lot of options when they're hit with noxious fumes, even with the new laws, said Kathleen Dachille, director of the Legal Resource Center for Tobacco Regulation, Litigation and Advocacy at the University of Maryland School of Law. Your best bet is to complain immediately.
Typically, a hotel will offer to move you to another room or, if the property is full, send you to another hotel without charging you extra, a process known as "walking" in the hotel industry. "If none of these remedies work, you send a letter to corporate and they'll send you a voucher for a free room," Dachille added.
Given the new rules, can an aggrieved guest find relief in court? Not really, Dachille said. You might have a claim under the Americans With Disabilities Act, involving so-called "third-hand" smoke, or smoke residue left on surfaces and objects even after a cigarette has been extinguished. But it would be a tough fight and probably not worth the effort, she said.
Still, on balance, more hotels than ever are in the nonsmoking camp today.
"Smokers are a dying breed," said Travis Johnson, who manages the Morgan hotel in San Simeon, Calif., and who notes that cigarettes can be an expensive habit for the unfortunate traveler with a nicotine addiction. If guests at the Morgan are caught lighting up, they're charged a $150 cleaning fee.
I, for one, am breathing easier now that smoking in hotels is on its way out. I've lost count of the number of smoking rooms I've stayed in. The odor of stale cigarettes takes weeks to wash out of my clothes. I don't begrudge smokers their right to puff away -- just please, not in the bed I'm about to sleep in.
Turns out that even some Las Vegas resorts are sensitive to their image and are doing everything they can -- short of banning cigarettes -- to ensure that nonsmoking guests don't have to breathe lungfuls of toxic air.
The hotel I stayed in, the upscale Aria Resort & Casino in the gleaming new CityCenter, reportedly has a special ventilation system that's designed to keep cigarette smoke away from blackjack dealers.
I'd call that a winning hand.
Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine's reader advocate. E-mail him at email@example.com.