The largest advocacy group in the nation that seeks to ban smoking in casinos said Thursday operators should be denied any federal COVID-19 relief funds unless the gaming industry goes smoke-free.
Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights took that message to the American Gaming Association ahead of the Washington D.C. trade organization’s semi-annual board meeting, scheduled for Friday.
In a letter to AGA CEO Bill Miller that was delivered Thursday, the organization didn’t dispute that the gaming industry was deserving of federal tax relief, admitting that casino operators have been hit hard financially by the coronavirus pandemic that closed nearly 1,000 commercial and tribal casinos in 43 states for several months earlier this year.
“We take issue with casinos potentially receiving such relief funding, (which) is necessitated by a pandemic involving respiratory issues, while still permitting an activity – indoor smoking – that promotes the spread of COVID-19,” Cynthia Hallett, CEO of the Berkley, California-based Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, wrote in the letter.
She wrote that Miller should use his “leadership position to make the argument to your members about why smoke-free indoors is a smart policy.”
AGA officials were preparing for the board meeting Thursday and did not respond to a request to comment on the letter.
Miller, along with gaming representatives, has sought to be part of any federal coronavirus relief efforts that could be used to aid gaming employees who had been furloughed or laid off and could stimulate the travel and tourism industries.
Currently, nearly two dozen states require gaming properties to be 100% smoke-free. Several states that added casinos over the past decade, such as Ohio and Maryland, opened their resorts as smoke-free casinos. Some 135 tribal casinos nationwide are smoke-free properties.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, three states – Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan – have temporarily banned smoking inside casinos, and casino operators in Arkansas and Rhode Island voluntarily went smoke-free.
Nevada, the nation’s largest gaming state, has long resisted anti-smoking efforts inside casinos. However, MGM Resorts International reopened Park MGM on the Strip as a fully non-smoking property in September following the property’s more than six-month closure.
“We think this will truly work and resonate with our customers,” MGM Resorts CEO Bill Hornbuckle told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in September. “If they want to be in a completely smoke-free environment, this is the one to be (at). We think it’s the right time, the right place.”
The organization last month sent a similar letter to Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, urging him to require that all casinos in the state adopt a smoke-free indoor policy. The group said the move would be a better alternative than once again closing gaming properties.
In her letter to Miller, Hallett wrote that “industry arguments against going smoke-free have grown stale and do not withstand scrutiny.”
Casinos throughout the U.S. have reopened under various COVID-19 health and safety guidelines calling for cleaning and social distancing protocols. Most properties require everyone on the casino floor – employees and guests alike – to wear masks or facial coverings at all times, unless eating or drinking.
“Guests who wear a mask but are allowed to remove it while inside to smoke are blowing potentially hazardous droplets into shared air for fellow guests and gaming employees to breathe in, which increases the risk for transmission of COVID-19, amongst other health risks,” Hallett wrote. “No credible public health official would approve of this, but it’s standard operating procedure in most casinos.”
She said the letter was also shared with members of the Congressional Gaming Caucus and other congressional members who are leading COVID-19 relief negotiations.
“We request that you only accept taxpayer dollars, which we agree are needed to sustain gaming jobs and business operations, if casino operators agree to adopt a smoke-free indoor policy that would help to keep employees and guests safe,” Hallett wrote.
Howard Stutz is the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.