My nephew Matt Mize, a longtime fan of slot machines and Marlboros, once explained his acceptance of casino smoking bans by citing a personal rule: “I don’t smoke in my own home.” He added that this commandment applied even on winter nights when the winds and subzero temperatures of rural Kansas make everyone want to stay inside.
Like Matt, many smokers wouldn’t dream of lighting up in another person’s house or car, let alone at all the places that formally prohibit smoking. That includes workplaces, restaurants, sports arenas, and almost any area open to the public – with the glaring exception of many casino floors.
Those unwarranted exemptions from sound public-health policy ignore the many documented dangers of smoking and human nature exemplified by Matt. The Shreveport City Council is the latest to fall victim to the lie that gamblers gotta smoke. The Council voted May 23 to once again allow smoking on the floors of Bally’s and Sam’s Town casinos, repealing a ban that took effect Aug. 1, 2021, less than two years ago.
The casinos claimed the smoking ban costs them money and customers and puts them at a competitive disadvantage with casinos in neighboring Bossier City. Louisiana Gaming Control Board figures, compiled by the state police, show annual gaming revenue at the two Shreveport casinos has dropped steadily since hitting $230 million in fiscal 2013-14; the sole exception is that 2020-21 revenue was up from 2019-20, which included the first months of the COVID pandemic. Revenue began falling years before the smoking ban, but the ban is easy to blame.
While the gaming industry prides itself on knowing how to get players to push their buttons, operators seem obtuse when dealing with the need to protect their customers and employees from secondhand smoke. People enjoy casinos because that’s where they can gamble. No other place offers the selection and excitement of a gaming floor. But not even the most devoted smoker says, “I need a cigarette. Let’s pack up and go to the casino!” They go for the thrill of gambling.
Limitations on smoking in public began 40 years ago; in 1987, a Gallup poll found for the first time that a majority of U.S. adults, 55 percent, favored a complete smoking ban in all public places. This year, 57 percent of Americans support a ban of all tobacco products, according to a poll for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still, too many casino executives hold their noses at the very idea of banning smoking on gaming floors. They tend to dredge up the standard doomsday predictions of lower profits, reduced tax revenue, and potential layoffs, despite the success of casinos in states with blanket bans on smoking in public and the scores of others that have voluntarily banned smoking since the pandemic.
In New Jersey, casinos continue their arguments against a smoking ban supported by a majority of state senators and Assembly members, but not yet brought to a vote. Critics of the proposal contend people would drive an extra half-hour or more to play at Pennsylvania casinos so they could smoke. Banning smoking is a good idea, some acknowledge, but “now is not the time” – as if they would ever find a time that is right.
In contrast, New York’s plan to license three downstate casinos poses a real threat to Atlantic City casinos. New York law requires commercial casinos to be smokefree, but that’s not the main reason customers would switch their allegiance. Studies show that location is a primary driver of where people choose to gamble.
“Atlantic City receives 30 percent of its revenue from upstate New Jersey and downstate New York and there’s no doubt (the New York expansion) is going to have an impact on this particular market,” Hard Rock International Chairman Jim Allen said at the East Coast Gaming Congress this month.
Some operators expose their short-term thinking by trying, and failing, at halfway measures. An Oklahoma casino recently touted its “smokefree” gaming area by showing off a room totally open to the rest of the casino floor and its smoke. That provides as much protection as labeling the middle of a swimming pool a no-peeing area.
Here’s another way to look at what should be an easy decision to ban smoking in casinos.
American Gaming Association research released this month showed that 85 percent of American adults now agree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 decision allowing any state to legalize and regulate sports betting, up from 63 percent in 2019. Coincidentally, that new figure is almost as much as the 88.5 percent of American adults who were non-smokers in 2021. Cigarette use among adults has been dropping for five decades.
Like Matt Mize, smokers are used to restrictions on where they can indulge their habit, not just by public-health policies, but many times by personal choice. And like virtually all other U.S. businesses, casinos are obligated to protect customers and employees from the hazards of secondhand smoke.
They should make the choice to do so.