Denis Floge knows how customers react when their casino bans smoking on the gaming floor.
“They just shrugged their shoulders,” said the chief executive officer of Sky City Casino in New Mexico. “The whole world is going nonsmoking.”
Sky City and more than a dozen other New Mexico tribal casinos voluntarily banned smoking in the aftermath of COVID. Floge spoke about the Sky City experience during audience comments after Wednesday’s first-ever Global Gaming Expo panel discussion on smoking in casinos.
The panel featured Marc Oppenheimer, chief marketing officer for Greenwood Gaming, which owns and operates the voluntarily smokefree Parx Casino near Philadelphia, plus betPARX and Parx Racing; Brian Christopher, the leading casino-gaming influencer who visits only smokefree casinos; and Traci Kennedy, Midwest states strategist for the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. Andrew Klebanow, a co-founder of C3 Gaming and principal of Klebanow Consulting, moderated.
Parx was Pennsylvania’s top-earning casino before COVID restrictions forced all the state’s casinos to be smokefree from June 2020 through June 2021; it stayed nonsmoking when the state lifted those restriction and it remains number one today.
Oppenheimer dismissed the argument that requiring smokers to go outside for a cigarette reduces their time to gamble. “I think people tend to be much more wallet-constrained than time-constrained,” he said.
Kennedy said the COVID pandemic brought about a sea change in attitudes about health, as well as an opportunity to reimagine what gaming spaces could look like and how operators can accommodate smokers, such as outdoor spaces to light up. She called indoor smoking “quite antiquated,” noting the New Jersey law that prohibits smoking in many outdoor areas and almost all indoor places open to the public — except casinos. That creates the anomaly that a smoker who cannot light up on the beach can walk into a casino and smoke.
A bill removing casinos’ exemption from the clean-indoor-air law has majority support in the New Jersey Legislature and she foresees “a real opportunity” of passage.
Christopher asked his followers’ opinions about smoking and 94 percent of respondents prefer nonsmoking casinos; 88 percent of the smokers who responded favor a smokefree gaming floor, as long as outdoor smoking patio is available.
“It’s not just my fans who say that,” he added, because slot manufacturers and casino executives often message him privately to say, “None of us want this.”
Christopher asked how low the smoking rate would have to drop before operators embrace smokefree casinos. “You’re forgetting about the 89 percent of the people (who don’t smoke). And it’s the 100 percent of people who have to breathe in these toxic chemicals, including the smokers who don’t want to be in a smoking facility.”
Oppenheimer said converting to nonsmoking can carry “significant” capital costs, such as replacing the carpet and other items that have absorbed smoke. He also said that for the second straight year, Parx decided not to increase the premium for employee health insurance. “Even though healthcare costs on average are going up, we believe we’re seeing a positive health impact among our employee base. Those are the facts of what’s happening.”
Christopher said that smoke in casinos is especially “disgusting” for younger players and workers who have grown up in smokefree air. “They don’t want to work there. They don’t want to gamble there or have fun with their friends or the bars there. Until casinos realize that’s happening, they’re going to see a big hole in the market.”
Klebanow said operators who have gone smokefree don’t have to replace table felts or reupholster furniture nearly as often after the switch and see lower costs of HVAC, air handling, and slot maintenance. He thinks part of management’s reluctance to ban casino smoking is that executives worry that it might cause a drop in profit, which could reduce their performance bonuses.
After the discussion, Floge told CDC Gaming Reports that Sky City converted part of a swimming-pool patio into a smoking area and allows slot players to save their seats when they leave for a meal or smoke break. For now, a chair tilted against the machine works, but he said a coming upgrade will lock the machine electronically. He described the Sky City conversion as a deep cleaning. “Our customers are happier. Nobody argues about it.”
What has happened, he continued, is the casino received a 40 percent rebate on its employee health insurance because workers had fewer claims.
He posed questions for other executives. “What are you willing to trade off? Do you want to make a few dollars on a few smokers in a diminishing market? Is that cost going to overcome what you’d save on your health insurance?”
In a similar vein, Oppenheimer told the panel audience that the decision on smoking shouldn’t “be shoved down companies’ throats.
“It’s a decision the leadership of any organization needs to make for themselves,” he said. “Do I believe it’s the right decision? Yes. Has it been a great decision for us? Absolutely.”