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Blowing Smoke

A number of states are considering legislation to ban smoking in casinos. Some plans are stalling due to concerns about revenue loss. Question: is the bottom line worth the health risks?

Blowing Smoke

Gamblers who visit Atlantic City casinos don’t have to go outside to grab a smoke—they have to go inside.

The state’s 2006 Smoke-Free Air Act prohibited smoking in workplaces, bars and restaurants; in 2018, the legislation was expanded to cover public parks and beaches. But it’s still OK to light up in all of AC’s nine gaming halls.

A bill to eliminate the casino exemption is in the state legislature, and Governor Phil Murphy, who allowed smoking to resume at casinos after the pandemic, says he’ll sign it if it reaches his desk. Until then, casino lobbyists have the edge.

For most casino workers, the debate is about workplace safety. For many operators and legislators, it comes down to dollars and cents. In April, Resorts Casino President Mark Giannantonio, head of the Casino Association of New Jersey, bailed on a planned panel discussion about smoking at the East Coast Gaming Congress (ECGC).

He released a statement saying an “immediate” ban on indoor smoking would have a “significant adverse effect” on casinos in the shore town, and “more time is needed” to come up with a solution that would safeguard employees’ health without putting their jobs at risk.

Pete Naccarelli, a dealer at Atlantic City’s Borgata, is impatient for change. He recently told a New Jersey news station, “It’s barbaric to have to be the smoke’s filter… You can tell there’s poison in here.” His colleague, Lamont White, said the dangers of secondhand smoke and the long-term damage it can cause is “always in the back of our minds.”

Together they founded Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Effects (CEASE), which has grown to include chapters in Pennsylvania, Kansas and Rhode Island.

Alan Feldman

Alan Feldman, a former MGM Resorts executive now with the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, opposes smoking at casinos but understands the economic concerns. “The fact of the matter is, in any jurisdiction where a smoking ban comes into place, the immediate reaction is a reduction in business.

“In New Jersey in particular, with all that’s happened in the last five to 10 years in terms of the market changing and weakening, anything that would speed up that process would be a difficult thing for legislators to do. There’s also going to be the expense of whatever retrofit is needed if this were to happen. Upgrading is incredibly expensive.”

However, Feldman adds, the period of adjustment that follows a smoking ban invariably passes and “things normalize.”

Point, Counterpoint

Both sides of the issue can find expert opinion to support them. New Jersey-based Spectrum Gaming Group says a smoking ban in Atlantic City would cause a revenue drop of between 4 percent and 11 percent. That’s in line with results in Delaware, where the state’s casinos saw a decline of 11 percent after a 2002 smoking ban.

In 2009, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis published a study contending that Illinois casinos incurred losses of 9 percent to 13 percent—or revenues of about $400 million—in the first year after the introduction of the Smoke-Free Illinois Act. Revenues to state and local governments declined accordingly, losing about $200 million. (The report acknowledges that the recession was a probable aggravating factor.)

On the other hand, a 2022 report from C3 Gaming of Las Vegas says data from multiple jurisdictions “clearly indicate that banning smoking no longer causes a dramatic drop in gaming revenue. In fact, non-smoking properties appear to be performing better than their counterparts that continue to allow smoking.”

Many casinos have invested in filtration systems that supposedly remove most of the toxins in cigarette smoke. But there’s no way to fully eliminate the hazard, especially at close range. Just ask any dealer who works across a table from smokers. Or casino patrons like Brian Christopher.

In June, the popular “slot influencer” opened his first branded gambling lounge at the Plaza in Las Vegas. Christopher says he no longer works in smoking casinos or posts his videos from their gaming floors (the Plaza allows smoking, so the BC Slot Lounge is in a separate building with its own ventilation system).

“I just didn’t want to live in it anymore,” says Christopher, “and I’m not going to walk into smoking casinos and promote for them, ever.”

Christopher says he’s spoken with casino officials who assure him that their ventilation systems eliminate virtually all smoke. “And I’m like, ‘No, you cannot be telling people this, this is not factual.’”

The Canadian-born personality, who has millions of subscribers and followers, says he moved to the U.S. in 2014, and “was shocked to find that there was still smoking allowed anywhere. You assume the U.S. is ahead of everyone else.”

Christopher says casino executives tell him quite candidly that their biggest gamblers also tend to be smokers, and smoking sections far outperform non-smoking sections. Bottom line, they’re unwilling to forfeit that business.

Clearing the Air

Richard Schuetz

There’s evidence to support the claim that habitual gamblers are more likely to also be smokers. That outrages gaming industry veteran Richard Schuetz, a former casino regulator who started as a dealer. Schuetz slams operators “who act ostensibly concerned about providing viable programs to help problem gamblers, but recognize the comorbidity between smoking and problem gambling” and tacitly enable it. “This is one of the hypocrisies of the industry.”

The British Medical Journal cites studies suggesting that smoking may be higher “among problem or pathological gamblers.” Scientists at the University of Calgary have also drawn a link between the activities, and say the high incidence of smoking among people with gambling disorder “is due in part to these activities being paired together repeatedly.” And a Connecticut study reported that smoking rates appear to be substantially higher among gamblers in treatment (62 percent) than those in the overall populace (22 percent).

None of these studies is conclusive, and according to the National Institutes of Health, researchers haven’t yet looked at “the potential cost savings and other economic benefits that could accrue from smoke-free laws,” including lower employee health care costs, improved productivity and decreased cleaning and maintenance expenses.

When a smoking ban was implemented at Colorado casinos in 2008, there was a net positive: the American Heart Association reported that calls to Gilpin County’s 20-plus casinos dropped about 20 percent.

Shreveport, Louisiana banned smoking during the pandemic, but repealed its Smoke-Free Act for casinos in May, claiming that customers were crossing the river to play at smoking casinos in Bossier City.

Adrian King, regional vice president of Boyd Gaming, saw a direct correlation between the smoking ban and lower revenues. Alice Kline of the American Cancer Society countered that Shreveport residents pay more in taxes for smoking-related health care costs than the casinos contribute in revenues. And casinos also pay a heavy price for cleaning up after smokers.

Hearings on the matter revealed markedly different views among casino staffers. As reported by the Shreveport Times, one employee blamed her respiratory problems on secondhand smoke inhaled at work. Another said she’s more concerned about her livelihood, and would move to Bossier City to work if the ban returned.

“Both those people are correct; there are risks on both sides,” observes Feldman. “But managing that risk can be done successfully in the long term—understanding that the short term could be rough.”

One thing is beyond debate, and that’s the deadly effects of smoking on health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths each year in the U.S. (or one of every five deaths). Secondhand smoke kills more than 41,000 nonsmokers. Then there’s thirdhand smoke, identified by the Mayo Clinic as the residue of tobacco smoke that becomes “embedded in most soft surfaces such as clothing, furniture, drapes, bedding and carpets” and also settles on hard surfaces like walls and floors. Thirdhand smoke is dangerous too, and can linger for months even after smoking discontinues.

And that’s the problem—how to balance real health risks against an economic hit that may lead to job losses. Bob McDevitt of UNITE Here Local 53 says New Jersey can’t ban smoking at Atlantic City casinos as long as it’s permitted in Pennsylvania. His solution: wait for Pennsylvania to enact a ban, after which New Jersey can follow suit.

CEASE’s White rejects the notion that customers will reject their favorite casino just because they’re asked to step outside for a smoke. As he put it, “Gamblers will swim through a moat of alligators to get back to a blackjack table.”

Christopher also doesn’t believe players in South Jersey will drive 90 minutes or more just so they can smoke at a slot machine. “People are there to gamble—they’re there for the experience, and if your casino’s not exciting enough for them, then you need to work on that.”

He also points out that revenue-wise, Parx Casino in Bucks County—a no-smoking property—regularly tops all its rivals in the Pennsylvania market.

Your Money or Your Life

In the 1940s, about half of American adults smoked cigarettes. By 2005, that figure had dropped to 20.9 percent. In 2021, the percentage was lower still, about 11.5. Cigarette smoking continues its downslide, and Schuetz says younger casino patrons may actually be repelled by smoke-filled rooms.

“So what are operators doing about future demand for their product? You’ve got a group that’s demographically aging out, and you always have to have new market coming in. For that new market, they’re creating a very inhospitable environment.”

The American Gaming Association is Switzerland when it comes to this issue—it has no official position on the matter, leaves it to member organizations to decide, and has never put the topic on the agenda at G2E.* Meanwhile, smoking—and the debate about smoking—continue in 16 states that still allow it.

While bars and restaurants have done just fine without smoking, the 2009 Federal Reserve Bank report said those venues can’t be fairly compared to casinos. “First, the marginal contribution of one or two casinos to local employment and tax revenue… is much greater than for a bar or restaurant,” the report states. “In many small communities, one or two casinos employ a large percentage of the population and also provide a large percentage of tax revenue to local communities.”

In addition, many state and local governments “earmark casino revenue to specific programs such as infrastructure and education,” which can suffer when revenues drop. So lawmakers and operators are understandably jittery. Sean Sullivan, general manager of Live! Casino in Western Pennsylvania, recently told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “I’ve never seen a smoke-free casino work as long as I’ve been in the industry.”

To that, Feldman responds, “He’s either not been in the industry long, or just hasn’t raised his head from his desk. The challenge here, and where he may have some standing, is that when smoking has been banned midstream, it’s had a negative effect. And that’s been everywhere.” But, as the C3 Gaming report noted, those properties “tended to recover in subsequent years.”

Cynthia Hallett

More than 1,000 gaming halls in 38 states no longer permit smoking indoors, and 20 states now have laws requiring commercial casinos to be 100 percent smoke-free. Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, says others “continue to employ the sky-is-falling scare tactics about jobs and revenues that contradict independent analysis of competitive casino markets where that just didn’t happen.”

Over time, smoking as a practice may die from attrition. Until then, activists like Vanessa Baker will continue to advocate for her health as well as her job. The head of Rhode Island’s CEASE chapter blames her respiratory problems on working on a smoky casino floor, and has said she’s no longer willing to be “the canary in the coal mine.”

And what about Shreveport? In May, former city council members John Nickelson and LeVette Fuller wrote an editorial “imploring” the current body not to repeal the city’s comprehensive smoking ban.

“We have the opportunity to position Shreveport as a leader in public health, a city that prioritizes its citizens’ well-being,” they wrote. “We shouldn’t sacrifice that opportunity in a misguided attempt to secure short-term economic gains.”

Shreveport Mayor Tom Arceneaux, who had the authority to veto the measure, instead straddled the fence, allowing the ordinance to pass into law without his signature. “Dealers and managers will have to choose,” he said, “between risk to their health from secondhand smoke and their livelihoods.”

And on June 1, smoking was back in Shreveport casinos.

As Schuetz says, “They shut casinos down across the country as a result of Covid, but they won’t stop smoking. It’s a clear indication that they feel guilty if they kill you quickly, but if it kills you slowly, they’re kind of cool with that.”

*Update:  A discussion on “Smoking and Casinos” will be held at this year’s Global Gaming Expo (G2E).  The discussion will take place on Wednesday, October 11, from 3:10-4:00 pm, at the Venetian Expo Hall.

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