Casino operators have long been resistant to banning smoking indoors, wary of alienating a segment of gamblers who prefer to light up while playing slots, blackjack, or other games.
But in 2015, Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison in Wisconsin decided to go non-smoking. Shortly after the prohibition was enacted, executive manager Dan Brown was talking to a colleague outside the casino when a car arrived. A woman exited the vehicle and the driver started yelling, waving a pack of cigarettes at Brown.
“He said, `I will never be back,’ and literally just peeled out of the parking lot,” Brown says, laughing. “There were people who were pretty outspoken about it, but what was really encouraging were the number of comment cards thanking us.”
For the last three years, Brown says Ho-Chunk has set record revenue numbers. With the COVID-19 pandemic causing many brick-and-mortar casinos to enact smoking bans due to state-mandated health and safety restrictions, the long debate about smoking in casinos appears to have reached a turning point.
In a recent partner call, Brian King of the Centers for Disease Control’s Office on Smoking and Health said that the pandemic “resulted in an increase in smokefree casino adoption” at more than 200 commercial and tribal casinos.
“With these policies that were decided during a time of closure, the benefit is that it allows these casinos that were already doing extensive cleaning for safety to reopen smokefree and really maximize that sense of having a safe, clean environment,” said Bronson Frick, the director of advocacy for the nonprofit groups Americans for Nonsmokers Rights and the Americans Nonsmokers Rights Foundation
Incorporated in 1984, the ANR produces programs that advocate for the prevention of harmful effects of secondhand smoke and smoking among youth and adults. Gaming operators, in efforts to address concerns about second-hand smoke, have long implemented measures to placate nonsmokers.
But according to Frick, the inherent problem with designated smoking areas, smoking rooms, and ventilation systems is simple: They don’t work.
“They don’t stop the smoke from spreading and none of those approaches address the health hazard of second-hand smoke,” Frick says.
While gaming customers can ostensibly make attempts to avoid smoking areas, casino workers have little choice if they are assigned to work in smoking sections. Workers can lobby employers to work in non-smoking sections, but sometimes they have no recourse.
Indoor smoking, Frick says, can be a detriment to “recruiting a talented, diverse workforce. But more importantly to retaining those workers once they onboard, particularly younger workers who were maybe recruited by their friends. Nobody wants to work in a smoking section.”
Brown notes the Ho-Chunk smoking ban was enacted after considering the makeup of its future customer base. According to the CDC, only 8% of adults between 18 and 24 smoke, compared to 16.7 adults ages 25-44, and 17% of adults between 45 and 64.
“We have to be looking to the future and what kind of market are we going to try to cultivate,” Brown says. “At the time we enacted the ban the millennials were the hot ticket, and that’s an active group, they’re outdoors doing things, they’re into healthy lifestyles. It was a very conscious decision to be sure that we keep them in mind in terms of tomorrow’s market segment.”
But do patrons want to eliminate smoking? According to Brian Christopher, the founder of BC Slots and, a slots influencer who has a slots room named after him at the Plaza Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
Christopher collaborated with ANR to develop a survey that gauges how slots players feel about gambling.
“We wanted to find out the truth, because most casinos don’t make that effort,” Christopher says. “They literally just walk in their own casinos and see smoke, so they think everyone is smoking.”
The results of the survey include:
- 70% of gamblers admit they are bothered by smoking in casinos
- 95% of respondents think smoking is a health hazard
- 88% of smokers would choose a non-smoking casino over a smoking casino, provided there was an outdoor option, such as a smoking patio
While only 13% of U.S. citizens smoke, it skews slightly higher with gamblers, with 19% admitting they smoke. But that still means 81% of casino patrons don’t smoke.
Christopher says the pandemic has forced casino operators to reassess their commitment to customer safety. The installation of high-tech HVAC systems, air purifiers, and mask requirements are welcome developments.
But one more step is needed.
“If safety was their No. 1 priority, there would be no smoking,” Christopher said, adding he especially feels bad for casino employees working in smoking sections.
“I just came back from being at a smoking casino for five days and I’ve been coughing now for two weeks. It’s just not good, and working in it has got to be a lot worse for (employees).”