The elevator rider asked a simple question as the car neared the gaming area of Rivers Casino Pittsburgh last week. “Can you still smoke here?”
The answer – yes, at least on half the floor – is not as revealing as the fact that the rider felt obliged to ask in the first place.
In Pennsylvania and throughout the country, smoke-free gambling is on the rise. Two Philadelphia-area casinos, both among the state’s top revenue producers, voluntarily outlawed smoking on their gaming floors. New Jersey and Rhode Island legislators are considering bills to eliminate smoking in casinos statewide. More than 150 tribal casinos nationwide, including some of the country’s largest gaming operations, have banned smoking since reopening from COVID closures. Any commercial casino built in the coveted locations of Chicago and New York City will have to be smoke-free under those states’ laws.
Social-media star Brian Christopher, who travels from casino to casino to make popular videos of his slot machine play, has seen a welcome shift toward smoke-free gaming floors since COVID.
“A lot of (casinos) are waking up to it,” he said, because those with smoking bans post high revenues and reduced costs.
Chris Moyer, a spokesperson for Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, said the multiple reasons to embrace smoke-free casinos “resonate with the vast majority of Americans.” Those include reduced health risks for players and workers, lower maintenance costs, and improved employee morale. “It’s just a common-sense issue.”
Veteran dealer Mike Danay, with almost 20 years’ experience in Atlantic City and Philadelphia casinos, said he’s talked with many customers who refuse to return to casinos because of secondhand smoke. “There’s nothing more unwelcoming than walking in and the smoke hitting you in the face. It’s hard to attract new customers with the smoking.”
A recent analysis from C3 Gaming of Las Vegas refutes the long-standing rationale for casinos to remain one of the few workplaces or entertainment venues exempted from smoking restrictions.
“Data from multiple jurisdictions clearly indicates that banning smoking no longer causes a dramatic drop in gaming revenue,” the report says. “In fact, non-smoking properties appear to be performing better than their counterparts that continue to allow smoking.”
In New Jersey, dozens of Republican and Democratic legislators, including several from Atlantic City and the surrounding area, are co-sponsoring a bill to remove the casino exemption from the state’s clean-indoor-air law. Governor Phil Murphy has said he would sign such a bill into law.
Christopher said nonsmoking casinos appeal to Millennial and Gen X players.
“If you want to attract them, give them what they’re used to,” he advised. “They live on social media, which is why every casino should allow you to bring in your cell phone and take photos of your wins and of the experience with your friends. But also … they’ve never walked inside a building with cigarette smoke, ever. It’s disgusting to them.”
Christopher said the smoke-free gaming trend is strong enough to take hold even in Las Vegas, which currently has only one nonsmoking resort: Park MGM, since September 2020. This month, the Plaza announced plans for downtown’s first smoke-free casino area, a roughly 2,500-square-foot slot room designed in partnership with Christopher. His appearances at casinos nationwide draw throngs of fans and hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and Facebook. This year, he prioritized nonsmoking casinos for his visits; starting in 2023, he said, he will go only to smoke-free gaming floors.
Danay sees New Jersey as a “linchpin” in the campaign to protect casino workers and customers from secondhand smoke. “Pretty much anywhere east of the Mississippi, Atlantic City is always the trendsetter (in gaming),” he said.
Danay and Moyer favor state laws requiring commercial casinos to be smoke-free, instead of waiting for voluntary bans. In addition to putting all operators on equal footing, Danay said, that would prevent a recurrence of what happened with Mount Airy Casino in Pennsylvania, which recently lifted a months-long voluntary ban on smoking. Mount Airy officials declined comment about the move.
Moyer said that after the COVID closures, some operators asked themselves, “How can we talk about protecting the health of our employees when it comes to masks … and then suddenly say, ‘We’re going to force you to breathe secondhand smoke while you’re working?’”
Another question for operators is C3’s observation of the contradiction between a basic tenet of responsible gaming – taking frequent breaks from play – and casinos’ argument that a smoking ban reduces casino income by forcing smokers to leave the floor for a cigarette. “That’s a real thing the industry is going to have to grapple with,” said Moyer, once the top spokesperson for the American Gaming Association.
The C3 analysis blames “myopic thinking” by casino operators, regulators, and taxing bodies for their reluctance to embrace smoke-free casinos.
“When they state that they care about the health and safety of their customers, employees, and their communities, while continuing to allow indoor smoking, they are at the very least being disingenuous,” the report says. “They must also recognize that their customers, employees, and the greater public know it.”
Danay agreed. “Even if it were true that banning smoking would lead to a revenue drop, wouldn’t it still be worth it? Have they thought for a second about the lives it would save?”