A chance to go non-smoking

It’s becoming clear that if smoking isn’t temporarily banned in any new round of casino restrictions that the state would put in place, it’s here to stay in casinos.

An anti-smoking group made headlines last week by urging casinos through the American Gaming Association to adopt smoke-free policies. It’s also encouraging Congress to tie any future coronavirus relief for the industry to a smoking ban.

Six months after Nevada casinos reopened from their COVID-19 shutdown, Gov. Steve Sisolak and the Nevada Gaming Control Board have yet to enact such a smoking ban at the urging of the Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights. That’s as COVID-19 cases are now hitting their peak in Nevada with more than 2,000 a day and hospitals nearing their capacity.

Prior to Thanksgiving, Gov. Sisolak reduced casino capacity from 50 percent to 25 percent and warned more restrictions could be forthcoming if coronavirus caseloads don’t improve. If there’s no smoking ban temporarily enacted in Nevada for COVID-19 as has been done for commercial casinos in Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, it’s unlikely the state will have one anytime soon.

You can blame what happened in Macau for that. It banned smoking on casino floors in 2014 and gaming revenue fell double digits the following year. When high-limit areas were included in 2019, VIP win declined more than 20 percent in the second half of 2019 ahead of the pandemic. Smoking has been restricted to enclosed lounges.

Oliver Lovat, the CEO and managing director of consulting firm the Denstone Group, said the casino industry has seen the impact of the Macau bans and fears the same result in Las Vegas.

“Gaming growth stalled because of the smoking ban in Macau,” Lovat said. “There’s a definite drop in revenues if you were to ban smoking in Las Vegas. Las Vegas is competing against Macau and Singapore (for that VIP customer who smokes and other casinos across the country where there are smoking bans for all customers). You can drive a competitive advantage with those customers, and that’s something we in Vegas must not lose sight of.”

Earlier this fall, MGM Resorts International reopened Park MGM with a ban on smoking and is the only Las Vegas resort that’s smoke free. MGM has said it has no plans to extend the practice to other properties.

“I don’t see a ban in Las Vegas happening anytime soon unless the locals want to pay (for it with) taxes,” Lovat said. “I think you may see greater trends for smoking bans in parts of the casino that are nonsmoking, but an outright ban where people gamble would have such a negative effect on gaming revenues the tax implications would mean a significant shortfall.”

Extending that would be the next step of a practice many casinos have adopted in recent years to ban smoking in race and sportsbooks. Casinos have also placed limitations where smoking can occur in gaming areas, including poker rooms and tables.

“It’s about customer demand,” Lovat said. “If customers demand nonsmoking areas, then the casinos will implement them.”

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Bronson Frick, who is director of advocacy for ANR, hasn’t given up hope that Sisolak will move via executive order to enact a ban as other states have done as a way to keep casinos open during the pandemic. He said he’s not aware of any major movement in the Nevada Legislature to take the matter up in 2021 although he said counties and cities could enact such a ban. Some 23 states have enacted bans.

“I think our chances in Nevada are ultimately good,” Frick said. “Most residents are non-smokers, including gaming staff and customers. Our hope would be that the Governor would implement smoke-free indoor air as a way to get workers and customers back to casinos safely.”

The public health is at stake because guests who wear a mask but are allowed to remove it inside are blowing potentially hazardous droplets into the air and that increases transmission of COVID-19 in addition to second-hand smoke concerns, Frick said. Even advanced air filtration systems can’t eliminate that problem.

Frick said states like Ohio and Maryland that have had smoking bans continue to do well. Lovat argues it’s hard to compare casinos that opened with a smoking ban than ones where it was later enacted.

Nearly 1,100 casinos across the country have bans on indoor smoking with more than 200 added to that total in 2020 upon their reopening because of the pandemic, Frick said. Many of those new additions are tribal casinos, and Frick said commercial casinos have been lagging behind tribes.

Claiming revenues will be trimmed with a ban is an outdated argument, and the pandemic has shown that casinos where smoking is banned are doing better, Frick contends.

Some 90 percent of young adults and 92 percent of seniors are non-seniors, according to Frick, who urged casinos to do surveys with their customers that would show they prefer a smoke-free casino.

“We’re hoping the gaming industry can use the context of this pandemic to move past indoor smoking,” Frick said. “Spittoons went away in a previous pandemic, and maybe it’s time for smoking to go the same way with this pandemic. People want an expectation of safety if they’re going to leave the house.”

Frick said it shouldn’t be hard for major casino companies like MGM whose casinos in Ohio, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts are smoke-free because of state laws to extend it to all its properties in Las Vegas.

“We would agree casinos deserve COVID dollars as any other industry, but we do take issue with providing COVID-19 tax dollars at the same time some casinos still permit indoor smoking that spreads COVID,” Frick said. “Casinos are learning to do business differently today, and smoke free air is part of getting workers and customers back safely.”

About the Author

Buck Wargo

Buck Wargo is a former journalist with the Los Angeles Times and has been based in Las Vegas as a business, real estate and gaming reporter since 2005.

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