Smoke-free discussion: Casinos, once again, have a chance to do the right thing

August 9, 2023 9:16 PM
Photo: American Nonsmokers' Rights Foundation (courtesy)/Casino smoking protest outside New Jersey statehouse
  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports
August 9, 2023 9:16 PM
  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports

In an industry with so much happening on so many levels, the recent news that October’s 2023 Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas had scheduled a discussion about smoking in casinos might have seemed like a pretty innocuous announcement.

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It was anything but that.

Gaming Inc. has thus far avoided an in-depth debate over the effects of smoking. It didn’t even consider the issue after Big Tobacco folded its hand. For those marking their calendars, the panel discussion is set for 3:10 p.m. on Wednesday Oct. 11 at the Venetian Expo.

Books could be written about all the reasons the industry changes the subject when smoking in casinos is raised. From player freedom and bottom-line-profit considerations to the debate over secondhand-smoke’s deleterious effects and the changes in air-circulation technology that appear to have cleared much of the fog from the gaming floor, the issues and arguments are endless.

For many reasons, the gaming industry is miles behind other businesses when it comes to the smoking issue. Although the scheduled discussion has been heralded as a breakthrough in some media circles, I can’t forget the feeling of standing behind enemy lines at G2E 2021 as I interviewed four veteran dealers who had tried and failed to get a time slot to discuss their efforts to raise serious health issues related to secondhand smoking for casino floor workers.

In an era when most places have banned smoking in restaurants and public spaces and many cities prohibit it in bars, with a few exceptions the gaming industry has worn holes in the carpet dragging its feet.

New Jersey has been on the forefront of the issue in recent years; nonsmoking activists there have pushed hard to change the old ways. The pandemic, with its myriad respiratory nightmares, appeared to provide the impetus for sweeping change, but instead of using it as a breakthrough moment, major corporations that don’t allow smoking in their own corporate headquarters let the opportunity pass.

It’s worth noting that Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights president and CEO Cynthia Hallett has been invited to participate in the discussion. She has more than three decades of experience working on smokefree indoor-air campaigns.

Having grown up in casino culture, I’ve heard all the arguments about the need to continue to allow smoking in casinos. Most of the valid elements of debate are based on profit considerations. But it’s also true that player tastes and habits – even those of compulsive players – are changing. The artificial “smokers’ rights” campaigns of the past were not only misleading, but dangerous. The fact is, public smoking is a public-health issue.

To her credit, Hallett didn’t crow about the announcement of the upcoming discussion.

We applaud AGA and G2E organizers for recognizing smoking as an important and timely issue for discussion at the gaming industry’s largest annual gathering,” she said in a statement. “Each year, G2E features conversations on a range of topics most relevant to the industry, even if how to approach a given topic lacks unanimity from industry stakeholders. ANR has been attending G2E and other major industry gatherings for many years as exhibitors, audience members, and partners in supporting a strong future for the gaming industry, all while seeking to educate industry leaders about the harms of secondhand smoke, which undisputedly causes cancer, heart disease, asthma, emphysema, and other diseases. We appreciate the attention G2E will give to indoor smoking within the formal education program at this year’s show.”

Well, it’s a start.

Although some tribal casinos, the Strip’s Park MGM, and the Parx Casino in Bensalem, Pa., have transitioned to nonsmoking, it’s far from the norm. 

“We’ve repeatedly seen that claims about dramatic negative business impacts have not come to fruition,” Hallett continued. “However, some in the industry continue to peddle misinformation as a scare tactic meant to maintain the dangerous status quo.”

With concerns from casino employees rising and the creation of an antismoking movement inside the industry itself (Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects), change is in the air.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the industry has the opportunity to at last catch up and get ahead of this issue. It’s not only good business and corporate practice in the long run, but also the right thing to do for customers and casino workers alike.