With Americans focused on protecting their health wherever they go, casinos can become better – and more profitable – entertainment options than they were pre-COVID, said Clinton Isham.
The “completely new world” brought on by the pandemic is another reason that casinos should ban smoking on the gaming floor, insists Isham, tribal gaming consultant for the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. Noting the historically low smoking rate among Millennials and Baby Boomers, he added, “This is what your customers want.”
Isham spoke this month at a National Indian Gaming Association “New Normal” webinar on smoking and casinos. Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which operates Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, and Jason Giles, NIGA executive director, were also on the panel. Victor Rocha, NIGA conference chairman and editor of Pechanga.net, moderated.
The massive Foxwoods property reopened June 1 as nonsmoking after being closed 11 weeks. Many tribal casinos reopened before their commercial counterparts, with some, including Foxwoods, enduring opposition from state officials.
Panelists agreed tribal casinos set a high standard with their health safeguards. Common measures included what has become widespread since: requiring face masks for everyone, temperature scans of customers, reduced capacity, installation of plexiglass screens at casino cages, and cancellation of entertainment events.
More than 150 of the roughly 500 tribal casinos nationwide enforced smoking bans upon reopening. Isham said that before the epidemic, only five tribal casinos were nonsmoking.
“Every decision we (at Foxwoods) were making was from a health sense and keeping people safe,” Butler said. He described the smoking ban as “just the right thing to do. The non-smoking (policy) was instrumental in gaining the confidence of the tribe, the tribal members, our employees, and our patrons to come back.”
He said that before the pandemic, Foxwoods’ smoking floors posted a win per unit of about 30 percent more than the nonsmoking floors. However, “nobody’s complaining” about the casino’s no-smoking policy, he said, predicting it will continue “for the foreseeable future.”
Giles acknowledged that public opinion heavily favors smoking bans in almost all businesses and said casinos have a hard time finding younger employees willing to work in a smoky environment. However, he said an extended revenue shortfall might pressure casinos to allow smoking on the gaming floor. The American Gaming Association reported Aug. 13 that second-quarter gross gaming revenue at commercial casinos was down 78.8 percent from 2019; for the first six months of the year, commercial GGR was down 45.6 percent, to $11.7 billion. Comparable figures for tribal casinos are not available; GGR totaled $33.7 billion in fiscal 2018, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission.
Isham said casinos that were smoke-free pre-COVID found that higher-tier player club members play slots longer and bet more money in smoke-free casinos. In an interview after the webinar, he cited a study in the March 2019 Public Health Reports, the journal of the U.S. Public Health Service and surgeon general’s office, showing that 75 percent of American adults favor smoke-free casinos.
“People don’t go to casinos to smoke cigarettes,” Isham said. “They go there to gamble. So regardless, they’ll always come to the casinos.”
Isham applauded tribes that have used their sovereign-nation status to institute their public-health safeguards in an effort to fight COVID-19.
“A lot of these policies are a lot stronger than you would see in the different states or communities surrounding them,” he told CDC Gaming Reports. “Tribal casinos are leading this initiative and showing … how to create good policies and how to take care of their community.”
He noted that tribal casinos were the first entities to reopen on a large scale. “They wrote the policies themselves on how to reopen. It’s a huge flex of the sovereignty muscle. A lot of tribes have concluded that going smoke-free is a part of those larger policies.”
The American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation is a non-lobbying, educational nonprofit organization focusing on the hazards of smoking and secondhand smoke. Its projects include Smokefreecasinos.org, which concentrates on the risks of secondhand smoke in gaming facilities.