Casino smoking bans: A tangle of health, RG principle, player preference, and money

September 27, 2022 8:08 PM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports
September 27, 2022 8:08 PM
  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports

With the first Responsible Gaming Education Month ending soon, casino consultant Andrew Klebanow reminds operators of an overlooked RG technique: Eliminate smoking in casinos.

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Insisting that smoking be allowed on casino floors for fear that gaming revenue will drop when smokers take breaks or cut their sessions short violates the RG principle that players should take frequent breaks while gambling, said Klebanow, a co-founder of C3 Gaming.

“A fundamental tenet of Responsible Gaming is encouraging your players to step away,” he said. He also pointed to three Philadelphia-area casinos that have banned smoking voluntarily. “They did it because they hadn’t seen a decline in gaming revenue (during a COVID-related smoking ban). And they did it because it’s the right thing to do.”

The National Council on Problem Gaming finds a connection between RG and smoking. While acknowledging that the overlap of smoking and problem gambling has been “lightly studied,” the Council says research shows a direct connection between gambling severity and both smoking frequency and nicotine dependency.

“Given this association between smoking and problem gambling, NCPG believes that making casinos smoke-free is likely to reduce the incidence of problem gambling and improve public health,” executive director Keith Whyte said in an August letter to the New Jersey Senate in support of a bill to ban smoking in Atlantic City casinos. The Associated Press reported that more than half of state lawmakers, plus Gov. Phil Murphy, support the bill, but it has not been put to a vote.

Clinton Isham, tribal-relations consultant for the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation, said the 150-plus tribal casinos that voluntarily banned smoking in the wake of the pandemic put the health of patrons and tribal members above the “old way of thinking”— that gambling and smoking are inseparable. He pointed to a study presented by Mike Meczka, known as the dean of gaming research, at the 2021 Indian Gaming Association Convention and Tradeshow. Meczka, who died a month after the show, found that 79 percent of players favor a smoke-free casino. Overall, players value location and convenience far more than the freedom to smoke when choosing where to gamble, the study showed.

Nationwide, 1,021 casinos and other gaming facilities are completely smoke-free, but gaming-floor workers are exposed to more secondhand smoker than any other job sector, according to the ANR Foundation. Nineteen states, including Illinois, Ohio, and New York, ban smoking in commercial casinos.

While the debate over whether to ban smoking in casinos has a connection to Responsible Gaming, it often boils down to a bottom-line approach.

Klebanow, also a CDC Gaming Reports contributor, said many gaming executives still harbor a “fundamental fear” that banning smoking reduces gaming revenue immediately, thus cutting their compensation and tarnishing their job-performance ratings. Gaming-revenue figures since the pandemic show that such fears are unfounded, he added. “There are always going to be angry smokers (because of a smoking ban),” he said. “It’s going to happen. But after the pandemic, it didn’t translate into a decline in gaming revenue.”

A C3 analysis released in June noted that several studies from a decade or more ago blaming anti-smoking policies for declines in casino revenue are outdated because of the spread of legalized gambling since then; several others assign all revenue losses to a smoking ban, but ignore more pertinent factors, such as national or international economic downturns and growth in competition. Comparisons of revenue between smoking and nonsmoking areas in the same casino are also often misleading; the smaller nonsmoking sections are isolated from the excitement of the main floor and typically don’t have table games or most popular slot titles, the report said.

On the other hand, Isham said that a study done in 2011 and reported in a paper titled “Gambling With Our Health” was “ahead of its time.” Those researchers found that a smoking ban would increase visitation at Lake of the Torches Resort Casino in Lac du Flambeau, Wis., and that patrons with more disposable income were the most likely to play more.

Isham recalled that Ho-Chunk Gaming in Madison decided to go smoke-free, in part, because of the study. According to media reports, Dan Brown, Executive Manager of Ho-Chunk Madison, said that revenue has increased every year since banning smoking in 2015, with the exception of the first year of the ban and the pandemic year of 2020. Ho-Chunk Madison is now the tribe’s top-performing casino.

Klebanow said campaigns against casino-smoking bans put forth an “indefensible argument.” New Jersey, Nevada, and Pennsylvania ban smoking in other buildings open to the public, as well as workplaces, stadiums, movie theaters, and a host of other sites in the name of public health, but they allow smoking on gaming floors, exposing workers and customers to secondhand smoke. Although declining to predict the fate of the proposed New Jersey ban, Klebanow said Nevada would be the last state – after Mississippi – to eliminate smoking from gaming floors, partially because Nevada has more than 2,000 places to gamble, while other states have far fewer.

Isham maintains faith that more casinos will join the smoke-free trend. “We’re in a whole new era,” he said. “This is just what people want. Employees, patrons, even casino managers want (to ban smoking). It’s something that is going to happen, so we might as well embrace it now.”