Smoking In Casinos May Be Coming To An End Thanks To COVID-19

Will the pandemic serve as the accelerant to ban smoking at tables and slots?
smoking gambling
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On a call with reporters on March 1, Brian King of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health noted a “silver lining” in the COVID-19 crisis: that over 200 casinos across the nation had re-opened their doors as smoke-free facilities.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an increase in smoke-free casino adoption, which is certainly a silver lining in the context of the pandemic,” King said, according to a CNN article.

He went on to wonder what would happen, post-pandemic.

“If all these casinos remain smoke free even post COVID-19, this could have an immeasurable [effect] in terms of not only protecting the public who attend these venues, but also workers who are working eight hours or more per day in these environments,” King added.

And that bit, right there, at the end — “but also workers” — is quickly becoming a pivot point for the anti-smoking lobby seeking to once and for all end cigarette smoking inside America’s casinos.

No smoking in Atlantic City

Industry watchers will certainly be looking at New Jersey in the coming months, as the state has mandated all the casinos in Atlantic City be smoke-free. The mandate — which comes direct from the governor’s office — is not expected to be lifted anytime soon.

And with that comes a potential opportunity to snuff out smoking completely.

In fact, there has been a bill floating around the state legislature since 2007 to do just that. It has gotten nowhere. But the sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, thinks things might be a little different this time around.

This year feels different, because we’ve seen the casinos adjust to smoking bans due to COVID, and so they’ve already had to revise their policies, and since they’ve revised it, let’s make it permanent,” she said. “They’ve gone through about six months of this.”

She pointed to a recent email she received as exhibit 1A when it comes to trying to do the mental gymnastics required to rationalize smoking inside casinos in a post-pandemic world.

“This is one email, and he says, ‘I don’t understand how we casino employees can be protected from a virus that might kill, but not be protected from second-hand smoke, which will kill us. Can someone explain this rationale to me?’”

Vainieri Huttle said she’s heard from anti-smoking groups, including the American Heart Association, and that there’s a planned, organized push by advocacy groups to help this bill along.

And as far as Vainieri Huttle is concerned, it’s close to a no-brainer at this point.

“I think there’s room for this this year just because the casinos have had it in place, they revised policies due to COVID, and again, we’re about protecting employees here,” she said. “It just shows employees are working in the casino and putting their lives on the line with COVID, and now they just want to alleviate second-hand smoke.”

Park MGM leads the Vegas charge

COVID or not, the trend toward limiting or banning smoking in casinos has been ongoing for years, according to Bronson Frick, the director of advocacy for Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights and the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation.

For instance, he points out there are already hundreds of casinos and tribal properties around the nation that had gone smoke-free pre-pandemic.

But perhaps the biggest feather in the non-smoking cap was the decision by Park MGM to reopen in September as a non-smoking facility, becoming the first resort in Las Vegas to do so.

Frick thinks plenty of eyes will be on Park MGM from competing casinos.

“Our hope is that smoke-free can become more of the norm across all gaming markets, including Nevada,” he said. “That would provide health parity for workers.”

Another item working in favor of eliminating smoking from casinos: investors.

“More of the publicly traded casino companies are being responsive to the massive growth of ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) criteria by institutional investors,” Frick said. “And having indoor smoking is not really in line with ESG framework. We expect more discussion of this issue with publicly traded casino companies.”

Of course, it’s not entirely about the stock market or employees’ health: The third factor is the casino patrons themselves, and the changing of Americans’ views on smoking.

“Certainly a lot has changed for the gaming industry when it comes to smoking,” Frick noted. “Today, 90 percent of young adults are non-smokers, and for years there has been this growing recognition that indoor smoking can pose business challenges in the ability to attract new customers. And now with COVID, we’ve all seen the emphasis that health and safety has had for assuring customers it’s safe to come back. But it’s hard to convey that safety is a priority when there’s still indoor smoking.”

Smokers gamble more

So why would casinos want to keep smoking on the menu?

One reason is pretty obvious once you spend a moment thinking about it: Smokers who are allowed to smoke while gambling aren’t leaving the table or the slots to go outside and smoke. They’ll continue to gamble.

Furthermore, numerous studies have demonstrated that smokers tend to stay longer, bet more, and lose more than non-smokers. For instance:

A 2002 University of Connecticut study showed cigarette smokers had a higher risk of developing a gambling problem.

A 2012 study by researchers at the University of Calgary and Dalhousie University found a correlation between smokers and gamblers, specifically that smokers tend to gamble more often and with more money.

An Australian study demonstrated that “smoking is a powerful reinforcement for the trance-inducing rituals associated with gambling.”

In short: Smokers gamble more, and more recklessly, than non-smokers.

So for casinos, it might come down to a simple cost-benefit analysis: Are they going to make more money allowing smoking, or are they leaving money on the table by chasing away non-smokers?

Pendulum swing?

In the end, the casinos may not have a choice, as smoking bans due to COVID probably won’t be lifted anytime soon.

But COVID might also prove to be a tipping point and give the casinos reason enough to take care of smoking by themselves. 

I think that COVID-19 has accelerated an existing trend in the industry away from smoking,” said Dr. David G. Schwartz, the noted gambling historian, former director of the Center for Gaming Research within University Libraries at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and current associate vice provost for faculty affairs. “Many operators resisted prohibiting smoking on their casino floors because of concerns about revenue — the accepted wisdom was that banning smoking led to a 15% or so decline in gaming win. But in 2020, operators saw their revenues decline anyway. In addition, many jurisdictions have come online that have been smoke-free from day one, and those seem to be performing well.”

In short: The pendulum is starting to swing. 

“There are several issues at play, but at the end of the day it comes down to whether smoking is a bigger asset or liability for casinos,” Schwartz said. “On one hand, some players like to smoke while they gamble, so banning it might lead them to leave. On the other, you have the health concerns of employees and patrons, as well as the preference of many other patrons for non-smoking. It’s likely that COVID had shifted the balance more to the anti- than pro-smoking end of the scale.”

Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em — but probably not for much longer.

Photo by Shutterstock.com

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