Casinos brace for smoking ban

Jul 10, 2007 12:13 AM

Even though it’s six months away, a ban against smoking in Colorado casinos has operators concerned, to say the least.

Come New Year’s Day, casinos will no longer be a bastion for smokers.

And that worries the gaming businesses, which lobbied hard to hang on to their initial exemption to the statewide smoking ban imposed at most other workplaces last year.

The legislature repealed that exemption during the session that concluded in May. The result: casinos will be smoke free on Jan. 1.

"Nobody took a long hard look at how it was going to hurt the casino business," Terry Houk, general manager at Doc Holliday Casino in Central City told the Rocky Mountain News. "They said it’s good for society, medical reasons and employees ”” and that’s it."

Houk estimated the ban could slash his casino’s revenues by roughly 30 percent because people will either stay away or go outside to smoke and not come back, especially if they’re on a losing streak.

He estimates that at least 75 percent of Doc Holliday patrons light up while they are playing the slot machines.

But Stephanie Steinberg, who formed the group Smoke-Free Gaming of Colorado, said the data indicate the opposite is true. She cites a University of Nevada study showing 80 percent of gamblers don’t smoke.

Steinberg, who urged the legislature to lift the exemption for casinos, predicts people might even frequent gaming parlors more often once the ban takes hold.

Shop owner Havana Boring expects both casinos and her own business to suffer. She and her husband, Don, own Annie Oakley’s Emporium, which has served as Central City’s only convenience and grocery store since 1993.

About 30 percent of the store’s revenue comes from the sale of cigarettes. It also carries an array of other items including milk, eggs and liquor.

"It will affect my business to a certain degree," Boring said of the smoking ban. "I think it’s going to drive a lot of small casinos out of business."

Doc Holliday’s Houk holds out some hope that Colorado lawmakers could seek a remedy if they see the state’s gaming tax coffers decline sharply after the ban.

On his wish list: an increase in gaming stakes, which are now limited to just $5 a bet.

The Colorado Gaming Association’s Lois Rice called such an outcome unlikely, even though Colorado has the lowest gambling stakes in the country.

"We don’t really see the smoking issue and the limited-stakes issue as connected," said Rice, executive director of the industry group. "We see them as two separate issues."

Rice said her group hasn’t ventured a guess as to how much casinos might be hit by a smoking ban.

"We really don’t know what’s going to happen," Rice said. "There isn’t enough empirical evidence out there to demonstrate the potential impact."