Will non-smoke catch on?

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A new era began Wednesday on the Las Vegas Strip when Park MGM and NoMad Las Vegas opened a smoke-free casino resort.

The question to be raised is whether this will be a stand-alone experiment or will others join?

Las Vegas has seen some properties eliminate smoking in race and sportsbooks in recent years and after reopening from the coronavirus. Some casinos have placed additional limitations on where smoking can take place in gaming areas.

“We had been considering this decision for quite some time, and determined that the reopening of Park MGM provided the right timing to make this shift,” Jenn Michaels, senior vice president of public relations with MGM Resorts International told Gaming Today. “Within MGM Resorts Las Vegas’ portfolio we have a variety of resorts that speak to individual preferences for a traveler. Our guests have told us they would like an option for a smoke-free casino and Park MGM will address that desire.”

Michaels said the initial reaction has been very positive but they understand that a smoke-free casino won’t be for everyone. Guests looking for that option are excited to come visit, she said.

Michaels said many MGM properties across the country are non-smoking already, but there are no plans to make other Strip casinos smoke-free at this time.

“The move to make Park MGM a smoke-free casino was under discussion prior to the pandemic, and the ultimate decision is unrelated,” Michaels said. “One of the things Las Vegas has always done best is offer a ‘something for everyone’s’ environment.”

Brendan Bussmann, a partner with consulting firm Global Market Advisors said what MGM is starting in Las Vegas may expand, especially since properties have already placed limitations on smoking since the reopening to lessen transmission of COVID-19. It won’t be every property but it will be difficult to go back to where it was.

“Once you take it away, it’s hard to put it back in,” Bussmann said. “I think you will see a lot more smoke-free gaming areas and other restrictions on floors and maybe just a smoker’s lounge. If you look regionally, most have gone smoke-free since reopening. It’s one of the outcomes of the great shutdown.”

In 2006, Nevada voters with a 54% margin approved the Clean Indoor Act which banned smoking in public areas and bars with a food-handling license while excluding gaming areas of casinos.

The biggest problem with a total smoking ban in Las Vegas is international customers smoke at a higher rate and wouldn’t be happy when they return once the pandemic ends, Bussmann said. Each property will have to look at their customer base and see what’s best to retain them.

Bussmann said having some properties go smoke free won’t hurt Las Vegas considering everything it offers visitors. Customers in regional markets have embraced smoking lounges but when the pandemic ends maybe people’s attitudes may change.

Anthony Lucas, a UNLV Hospitality College professor, said the smoke-free casino has been tried elsewhere before the pandemic and has not always been successful. The risk is customers can walk next door and smoke.

“It’s hard to go non-smoking in a market full of smoking competitors,” Lucas said. “It was tried years ago, and it didn’t go well. But that was a marginal property on the Strip that’s no longer there.”

Lucas, who said he’s conducting a study on the effects of smoking limitations on California tribal casinos in conjunction with San Diego State University, said adult smoking is at an all-time low in the U.S. at 14%. The other argument, however, is that gamblers smoke, which one tribe in Northern California, the Win-River Resort and Casino, discovered a few years ago when it banned smoking. Revenues rose when partial smoking was reinstated, he said.

“This is Vegas and people come here to be bad,” Lucas said. “There’s probably a lot of closet smoking. There’s this hand-in-glove relationship that people are claiming is prevalent.”

Lucas said there’s no definitive study, however, that proves that. He hopes the joint study with San Diego State will provide evidence either way on impact on revenue.

“You would think that with that 86% who don’t smoke that’s what people would want in casinos,” Lucas said. “But the thought is if the best gamblers are also smokers, we have this disproportionate revenue contribution.”

Lucas said he’s not expecting other properties to follow the Park MGM lead, but anything is possible if a CEO wants to try it. People already can’t smoke in hotels, restaurants, sportsbooks and convention areas.

“I think what MGM is doing here is an experiment, but it will be hard to measure though,” Lucas said. “You have these simultaneous effects. You have this struggling economy that is trying to rebound and post-pandemic conditions that are going to come into play. If revenues are down, you don’t know if it’s non-smoking or the pandemic. They can compare their revenues to Aria and New York-New York.”

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Lucas said designated smoking areas don’t work. The only way to allow smoking in a casino and not impact the air is a separate building with its own heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.  

“It only takes a few people smoking to blow up the whole room,” Lucas said. “It toxifies the entire casino even with an advanced air handling system. The anti-smokers are going to like what Park MGM is doing.”

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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