G2E smoking-policy panelists look for “genuine discussion” of thorny issue

August 14, 2023 9:03 PM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Mark Gruetze, CDC Gaming Reports
August 14, 2023 9:03 PM

The first-ever G2E panel discussion on smoking in casinos will focus attention on the supposed threat a smokefree policy poses to gaming revenue and jobs.

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Panelist Andrew Klebanow, co-founder of C3 Gaming, will point out that the five top-grossing U.S. casinos outside Nevada all ban indoor smoking. Panelist Marc Oppenheimer, chief marketing officer for Greenwood Gaming, will relate that Parx Casino in Philadelphia voluntarily stayed smokefree when COVID restrictions were lifted and remains Pennsylvania’s number-one gaming-revenue generator. Panelist Brian Christopher, social-media’s leading casino-gaming influencer, will detail how his audience, predominantly male Millennials, prefers smokefree gambling – even those who are smokers. And panelist Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights and the ANR Foundation, said she hopes “to engage the audience in a genuine discussion” about why and how to switch to a smokefree gaming floor.

Hallett said the Oct. 11 Global Gaming Expo session reflects the growth of nonsmoking U.S. casinos. Although Nevada, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania exempt commercial gaming floors from clean-air laws, 20 other states, along with New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., require theirs to be smokefree. More than 160 tribal casinos have gone smokefree and Navajo Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have adopted smokefree policies.

Gaming is “miles behind” other industries, according to Hallett.

Oppenheimer said Parx employees are “very very happy” with the indoor-smoking ban, while customer surveys show few complaints and a “significant number” of positive comments. The casino added an outdoor-smoking patio that doesn’t require users to go through security to re-enter the floor.

“We haven’t lost market share,” he said. “I’m sure some smokers have decided to go to other casinos, but I’m also sure some nonsmokers have decided to come to Parx.” In January, Greenwood opened Parx Shippensburg, with about 500 slots and 48 ETGs, in central Pennsylvania. That casino also is nonsmoking, and “it hasn’t been an issue.”

Oppenheimer said operators considering a switch to smokefree should include a convenient option for smokers, such as an outdoor patio. Although not necessarily advocating smoking bans, he suggested, “Try it and see what happens. That’s what we did. It’s an option for every property to think about. Our experience says that even if your competition still has (smoking), it doesn’t hurt you.”

Christopher, who now limits his promotional visits to smokefree casinos, boasts 5 million unique viewers per month for his slot-playing videos and livestreams. Gaming Arts produces two slot titles based on his videos and in June, the Plaza in downtown Las Vegas announced an expansion of the smokefree slot area bearing his name. He called an industry discussion on smoking “long overdue” and noted the dire predictions of a smoking ban causing revenue and job losses echo the arguments made years ago by restaurants, theaters, bars, and other establishments.

“As long as you have a good property and you offer good entertainment, you can attract people,” said Christopher, who will be on a second G2E panel, “Influence Is the New Currency: How Player Marketing Is Evolving.” He cited his website’s survey of dues-paying fans, which showed that 94 percent of respondents prefer a smokefree casino, while 88 percent of respondents who smoke prefer smokefree casinos if they offer an outdoor smoking area. Christopher is an official advocate of the ANR.

Klebanow participated in panel discussions about nonsmoking casinos at two Indian Gaming Association conferences, while a 2022 analysis by C3 Consulting said COVID caused “a radical change” in public perception about smoking in casinos. Operators that banned smoking since the pandemic did not see a drop in gaming revenue or lose market share to nearby casinos that allow smoking, the report found.

“Smokers have been living with smoking prohibitions now for the better part of two decades,” Klebanow said. A gaming floor “is just one more place.”

He said a major contributor to executives’ reluctance to bring casinos under clean-air laws is that their bonuses are often tied to quarterly or monthly revenue performance. Even a small dip for a brief time can cost them personally. In a similar vein, legislators responsible for clean-air laws worry about a drop in tax revenue.

For the July issue of Indian Gaming magazine, Klebanow wrote about five strategies casinos have adopted when switching to nonsmoking: 100 percent nonsmoking properties; providing outdoor smoking patios, some with slot games; erecting buildings exclusively for smokers; converting existing walled-off nonsmoking areas to smoking and changing the rest of the floor to nonsmoking; and installing airport-style smoking lounges.

He said casinos that have banned smoking since the pandemic report lower maintenance costs for HVAC systems, fewer slot repairs, and longer life for table felts and upholstery, and it helps in recruiting and retaining employees.

Despite the industry’s reliance on a wealth of customer data, Hallett said many casinos fail to survey players about going smokefree. “Player behavior has changed,” she said. “If they would do the research, they would be pleasantly surprised to learn there is a lot of support for going smokefree.”

The percentage of smokers among people who gamble is about the same as among the national population, about 11 percent. However, Hallett said the percentage of smokers among players with problem gambling is higher.

“There are so many reasons casinos should support going smokefree, from employee health and safety to player preference and also dealing with rhe Responsible-gambling problem,” she said.