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Opinion - Moral Cowardice and Smoking in Casinos

When it comes to smoking in casinos, hypocrisy prevails

Opinion - Moral Cowardice and Smoking in Casinos

During COVID-19, it was rather strange how we shut down so many casinos because congregating within them may have endangered the health and welfare of the guests and employees. Yet today, in the states that allow smoking in casinos, congregating within casinos endangers the health and welfare of the guests and employees, yet casinos are kept open.

The lesson from the casino industry is clear—they are cool with killing their guests and employees as long as it is a long and drawn-out event.

It was in the early 1950s that the scientific community began suggesting that smoking carried health risks to people who consumed tobacco products. This soon evolved into an understanding within the scientific community and beyond that this risk was also borne by people who were in the presence of secondhand smoke (SHS) from tobacco products.

In industrial settings, it was during the middle to late 1960s that the health risks of smoking on airlines began to be discussed in public, with Ralph Nader being one of the more noteworthy airline anti-smoking advocates. The argument was that people smoking on airlines, even in special sections, created health risks for other passengers and an unsafe working environment for employees of the airlines.

Richard Shuetz

Richard Shuetz

Yet, it was not until 1990 that smoking was banned on domestic flights in the U.S., and it was not until 1998 that the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement was signed between the attorneys general of the vast majority of U.S. states and territories, and the four largest U.S. tobacco companies. This last event greatly curtailed tobacco industry practices and set in motion a material decrease in smoking in the U.S.

Discovered from a great many legal battles during these timelines was the reality that the smoking industry, lobbyists, and many politicians knew that smoking and SHS were health risks. In spite of this, they employed a great many deceptive tactics, including outright lying and fabricated research to delay any corrective measures designed to protect the employees and the consumers from the direct or indirect damage brought on by cigarette smoke.

In the end, this strategy resulted in the tobacco industry being subjected to enormous fines, settlements and sanctions. Moreover, this long delay to effect change caused health issues and deaths to real human beings for a great many years.

One of the last industrial holdouts of delaying the inevitable has been the casino industry in several U.S. states. It is interesting to note that in the global airline industry, there are also several remaining holdouts. The most notable airlines still allowing smoking are Air Algeria, Cubana and Iran Air. It must bring great pride to the casino owners, executives, regulators and politicians in the casino-smoking states that they have not advanced beyond the scientific understanding and moral clarity of Iran, Cuba and Algeria.

Oh, and Nevada also allows smoking in its brothels.

One wonders if the casino REITs will also be investing in Nevada’s brothels, for apparently, they do not possess any of those silly ESG rules that would suggest a landlord should not allow an unsafe work environment for the employees and guests working in the buildings they own. Lawyers and journalists might want to start looking at these very deep-pocketed entities that pursue a business model that wreaks havoc on people’s health.

I would guess the REITs believe that they can command higher rents if they allow the tenant to offer smoking, so they turn a blind eye to the health damage it may cause. It is probably even easier for them, for a disproportionate number of the employees affected by smoking in casinos are women and people of color—noting that the REITS are generally white male things at the higher organizational levels who are blessed to work in non-smoking environments.

White men, in and around the casino industry, have long held little concern or respect for people of color, as was best demonstrated by the reality that black people could not enter the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip until the early to mid 1960s. One, therefore, should not be too surprised that the white men who still control the casino industry today are not overly concerned over the detrimental effects of smoke in casinos when the employees most affected are not male and pale.

One would think that the parents of college athletes would also be concerned, knowing that for athletic events in Nevada, their kids may be housed in a building that is unsafe (I am talking about the casino resorts and not the brothels). Utah must love this.

It would be interesting to see what the college athletic sanctioning bodies feel about having college students required to stay in buildings that are dangerous to a student’s health. Or are the colleges like the gaming industry, which will subject people to unsafe air for a few dollars more?

Most gaming regulatory agencies have language within their enabling legislation and/or regulatory packages that suggests the industry participants will operate with a high degree of character, honesty and integrity. Moreover, there is generally language to suggest that the operators adhere to a suitable means of operation. It is a rather Mad Hatter’s notion that risking the health of a large segment of the workforce in an unhealthy work environment is suitable—and reflective of character, honesty and integrity.

I would also suggest that most of the heads of the regulatory agencies in smoking states would say they stick up for their people. It is hard to comprehend why the head of an agency would remain silent while his or her people are required to work in an unsafe work environment. This appears more in line with regulatory capture than protecting the staff from harmful working conditions. Making them work in casinos with secondhand smoke is not sticking up for them—it is selling them out.

One of the most interesting things to watch in the whole casino smoking issue is the absence of industry executives in the smoking debate. A number of gaming conferences over the last few years have had panels on casino smoking, and if there is a common element, it is that the conference organizer cannot find an executive willing to join the panel. These folks also are no-shows as speakers at legislative hearings. This makes a great deal of sense.

If the executive attempts to suggest that special smoking sections within casinos eliminate the risk to employees and guests, they would not be telling the truth, and there is some excellent research to demonstrate that this is a myth—or maybe the more appropriate expression is it is a lie.

If the executive tried to suggest that filtration systems can eliminate the risk, they would not be telling the truth, and there is great research to demonstrate this is an industry myth…or shall we say lie?

If the executive would suggest that the casinos’ employees were its most important asset, they would not make them work in a hazardous environment. No, a casino executive does not show up to speak on smoking because science has uncovered all of the smoking arguments as myth-based nonsense, and casino executives need to be careful about going on the record with myth-based nonsense—especially when it affects the health and welfare of its guests and employees.

At best, one can expect more silence and hiding by the executives, and they will just pay some lobbyist or politician to continue to shape the dishonest narrative.

Part of the problem is that today’s executives live in a very small world that is financial quarter to quarter. They understand that eliminating smoking in a casino will affect the next quarter’s results. To avoid this, they parrot the myths and lies, hide, and pay someone to delay the political process and allow the damage to employees and guests to continue.

There is a cost to this, and it has everything to do with the future. It might be time for the leadership of the gaming industry to get out of its quarter-to-quarter little world and look at what that group of roughly 25-to-40-year-olds thinks about hanging out in smokey and dangerous buildings (spoiler alert, they don’t dig it). Ironically, the industry is helping kill off the baby boomers and simultaneously turning off the millennials—and that is stupidity, not vision.

Leadership should also understand that social and consumer change is coming about at an ever-increasing rate, and if they continue to be stuck with an arcane model, they will completely miss the future. What they are doing is not building a sustainable model but living in the death throngs of a rapidly antiquating one.

Plus, damaging the health of employees is very uncool. In fact, it is downright wrong. I pray that the children of today’s casino executives find jobs with someone with higher moral qualities than their parents, who cause their workers to jeopardize their health if they want to work. It seems the casino operators in smoking states believe that if an employee does not want to work in a dangerous environment, they don’t care. There will always be another job seeker to whom they can sell the industry’s myths.

Richard Schuetz entered the gaming industry working nights as a blackjack and dice dealer while attending college, and has since served in many capacities within the industry, including operations, finance, and marketing. He has held senior executive positions up to and including CEO in jurisdictions across the United States, and served as a member of the California Gambling Control Commission and as executive director of the Bermuda Casino Gaming Commission.

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