There are many weird things about Las Vegas, from the truck that drives around offering ‘Hot Babes Direct To You’ to the entrepreneurial hard-up young man on the Boulevard who holds a placard saying: ‘Kick me in the nuts for $20. No joke. No protective cup.’ But the thing I find weirdest is that you can still smoke in bars and casinos, even in some restaurants. Where most American cities, and European ones too, have imposed upon their populations what the New Labour government described in brilliant doublespeak as ‘smokefreedom’, Vegas remains gloriously smokeunfree. In one casino, the fug of tobacco smoke becomes almost unbearable, to my eyes and throat at least. Yet even through the tears, I can see how civilised it is to allow adults to do adult things — drinking, smoking, schmoozing, flirting — and to decide for themselves whether to light up and whether to hang out with smokers or non-smokers. How tragic that one has to travel to a notoriously sinful city in the Nevada desert to see the ideal of choice being respected.
Vegas offers insight into how the ideology of sin has changed. Where once this garish, almost ironically sleazy outpost was known as Sin City for its gambling and boozing, now it’s seen as sinful because it allows smoking in public and because it has restaurants that cajole you into consuming more calories than the average human constitution can cope with. Where Vegas’s old sins of gambling and drinking have been pathologised in recent years, turned from moral failings into pitiable ‘addictions’ that require the intervention of today’s Oprahite therapeutic priesthood, puffing on a fag or stuffing your face with burgers is still explicitly considered immoral, signs of a gluttonous, self-loathing disposition. The extent to which sin has moved from the realm of morality to health, from being concerned with matters of the soul to being obsessed with the more bovine question of what we’re doing to our lungs or stomachs, is summed up in the way one anti-smoking lobby group has rewritten an old Vegas slogan: ‘What happens in Vegas stays in your lungs.’
At the downtown Heart Attack Grill, you’re encouraged to be disgustingly greedy. ‘Caution! This establishment is bad for your health’, says a sign on the door. The waitresses, dressed as saucy nurses, put you in a hospital gown, the idea being that you’re about to eat such unbelievably fatty foods that you might need hospitalisation later. In a rather touching refusal to demonise the morbidly obese — as much of respectable America is wont to do these days — the restaurant allows people who weigh more than 350lbs (25 stones) to eat for free. Their huge, very public weighing scales reveal that I’m a mere 174lbs, so sadly I have to pay for my ‘Bypass burger’ and ‘flatliner fries’ (fried in pure lard). It feels good to indulge in behaviour that the five-a-day brigade would consider foul bordering on evil. ‘Would you like a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes to finish off your meal?’ asks a buxom nurse. I decline, having sinned quite enough for one day.
When Barack Obama was re-elected, and referendums in some states legalised the smoking of marijuana, East Coast elites rechristened the United States ‘Liberal America’. Yet it’s a weird liberal country where you can smoke pot but smoking a cigarette is increasingly difficult; where someone like New York mayor Michael Bloomberg pumps money into campaigns for the right of gays to get married, yet bans New Yorkers from buying super-size sodas. In effect, the new Liberal America is liberal if you’re middle-class and have decent middle-class vices like smoking dope, but not so much if you’re working-class and like ciggies or the occasional bucket-sized Coke.
I’ve always admired America’s Second Amendment. What an extraordinary expression of trust in a people, to allow them the right to bear arms as a guard against tyrannical government. I get to exercise this right, temporarily, at Machine Guns Vegas, a shooting range run by impeccably polite gun enthusiasts (they are not all the rough-mouthed rednecks of liberal-media legend) and by attractive female former soldiers who served in Iraq. With a handgun, shotgun and 1920s Thompson submachine gun, I make mincemeat of posters of Osama bin Laden. Exciting as it is, I am not subsequently consumed by an urge to buy a gun and shoot up my fellow citizens, as pious anti-gun campaigners expect thrill-shooters like me to be. What happens in the shooting range stays in the shooting range.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 8 December 2012