Casino Smoking Ban Proponents Are Doing It Wrong

High Limits are nonsmoking at Harrah's Cherokee Valley River in North Carolina

Twelve years after the last statewide casino smoking ban passed in any state, there is a push for new ones. The problem is that those who want to change public policy are going about it wrong, in my opinion.

Lobbyists are spreading misinformation to further their agenda. There is a better way to go about it.

A group called the Americans for Nonsmokers Rights seems to be behind the latest push. In an article published by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the group claims that 21 states ban smoking in casinos. The CDC says that number is nine. I think the number is 13, when including four states with card clubs. Either number is less than half of states with commercial casinos, and nowhere near the level claimed by this lobbying group.

The problem with the numbers used by the Americans for Nonsmokers Rights is that it seems to include some states that exempt casinos from its smoking ban, as well as ones that only have tribal gaming, where statewide smoking bans do not apply. One of the states listed is Vermont, where there are no casinos.

I contacted the Americans for Nonsmokers Rights to understand why they included these states in their number. I received lobbying material from the group, but have not gotten an answer to my question two days later.

The report anti-smoking lobbyists often cite to back their claims is, at best, incomplete. That is covered in the last section of this article.

How I would pursue a casino smoking ban

I hate casino smoking. I wish it would go away as much as these groups do. However, I think they are going about it wrong. 

It is irrefutable that second hand smoke is a health hazard. This needs to be the number one way anti-smoking lobbyists convey their message. Everything else is hypothetical and anecdotal. Any claim that gaming revenues are not affected has virtually no evidence to back it up, and a mountain that refutes it. 

Using the fact that small regional casinos and ones with monopolies have seen some success banning smoking will not convince owners of massive resorts in destination gaming cities to try the same on any serious level. The two markets are not comparable. 

Convince casinos and legislators that this will pay off with a healthier workforce and constituency in the long run. Try to motivate casinos to do it voluntarily. One thought I have is raising the gaming tax on establishments that continue to allow smoking. That money can be used for health care and anti-smoking advertising. 

Another idea would be to give a gaming tax credit to casinos that ban smoking. Nevada posted a $1 billion tax windfall for fiscal year 2022. Some of those funds could be used for this. 

After a couple of years, we would have real data as to how a casino smoking ban affected revenues, taxes and jobs. If players flocked to non-smoking casinos, and smoking ones suffered, then we would know that is the answer. If they do not, casinos could go back to how they operated before without the need to change the laws again. This could also be the compromise that could give a little bit to both sides of the debate. 

Another option includes outdoor gaming areas where smoking is permitted, while indoor smoking is not. These seem to work well in Maryland and Ohio

Banning smoking at table games seems like another good compromise. Venetian, Palazzo and Rampart are examples of Las Vegas casinos with this policy. Mandating nonsmoking areas is another possible solution.

Both Atlantic City and Nevada have repealed smoking bans related to gaming in the past. There is no reason to go through that again if it turns out the time is not right. Make it voluntary until we have reliable data to support a permanent solution.

Las Vegas casinos are already experimenting with smoking bans

Park MGM is a Las Vegas casino that does not permit smoking. It reopened after the pandemic closure as a smoke-free casino, the only one of its kind in Las Vegas. MGM Resorts does not report revenue for individual properties anymore, so there is no way to know how the experiment is going. I think the fact that no other properties have followed suit speaks for itself. 

If I had to guess, I would say that Park MGM is about level with 2019 numbers. I base this on my visits there over the last two years. That does not mean that every casino would end that way if it was a blanket policy in the market. Park MGM is carving out a niche it would lose if all casinos were forced to ban smoking.

Plaza is building a smoke-free casino near its front entrance that will become the new BC Slots area. It will be the only significant non-smoking casino space in downtown Las Vegas. Its success or failure may give us a better idea of what the market wants.

Several locals casinos have non-smoking areas. Most are small. None are separate from the smoking areas in the same casinos. Arizona Charlie’s on Decatur tried a separate non-smoking area for several years last decade. That experiment was halted. Oddly, it was home to the only smoking poker room in Las Vegas during the same time.

Passing a Nevada casino smoking ban seems nearly impossible

When Nevada passed its 2006 statewide smoking ban that exempted casinos and bars, it required a ballot initiative. The state legislature did not pass it. It was partially repealed by the legislature twice. Once was to permit smoking at conventions. The other was to take bars that serve food out of the restaurant category so that smoking would be permitted in these establishments. That part of the smoking ban was widely ignored before its repeal. 

I think it would take another grassroots effort to get a casino smoking ban on the ballot. The casinos mostly supported the restaurant smoking ban. That won’t be the case for casino floors. The movement would need to gather signatures, file with the secretary of state’s office, and push the initiative while fighting the gaming industry. That is not an easy or cheap task. It would be simpler in other states that are not as reliant on gaming taxes.

Report claims gaming revenue is not affected by smoking bans

A 30-page report published earlier this year claims that smoking bans do not hurt casino revenues. It uses examples like Delaware’s 20-year old smoking ban, the first of its kind to cover casinos, as well as the one in Illinois that went into effect in 2008.

The report tries to justify that smoking bans were not related to massive losses the Illinois casino industry faced starting in 2008. The authors believe it had more to do with a new Missouri casino opening. However, Missouri gaming revenues only increased about 10% of the Illinois gaming losses in 2008 and beyond. The casino in question, called Lumière Place at the time and is now Horseshoe St. Louis, has never generated as much gaming revenue as Illinois lost.

A 44-page report from the St. Louis Federal Reserve concluded that the smoking ban was the reason Illinois lost gaming revenue. It clearly demonstrates that substantial numbers of Illinois gamblers moved their action to border states where smoking is permitted.

It is 2022, and Illinois casinos have never generated more than 83% of the 2007 gaming total. That was the last year before the smoking ban, and stands as the record year for Illinois casino revenue. Some years have been down nearly 30% from the 2007 peak. The report fails to mention any of these facts.

A better argument would be attributing some of those losses to the expansion of convenience gambling in Illinois. This form of gaming has been legal for about half the time the Illinois smoking ban has been in effect.

The report ignores the devastation in gaming revenues experienced in Colorado, Montana and South Dakota after smoking bans passed in those states. Colorado and South Dakota had to raise bet limits and add craps and roulette to come back to the same levels. Additionally, the South Dakota Video Lottery needed to add penny slots to its video poker and video keno offerings to get out of the hole. Montana’s video lottery did nothing new, and never recovered. 

The report also cites local smoking bans during the pandemic, as well as over 100 casinos voluntarily banning smoking since 2020. These are nearly all small locals casinos, with a few large ones in monopoly markets, like North Carolina and Connecticut. There is no explanation as to how this would translate into success in competitive destination gaming markets like Atlantic City, Biloxi and Las Vegas.

Individual casino comparisons are incomplete, incompatible

The report’s authors use Indiana’s Blue Chip as an example of a casino losing revenue due to smoking, comparing it to nearby Michigan casinos that stopped allowing smoking in 2020. The report asserts “even smoking patrons who used to have the option of gambling at the Four Winds Casino, ten miles away in New Buffalo, MI did not venture to Blue Chip in order to smoke while gambling,” but fails to explain how they concluded that because it does not include revenue numbers from any of the Four Winds casinos it uses for the comparison. It is just anecdotal. 

Another comparison is between Pennsylvania’s Parx Casino and Valley Forge Resort. Parx is a suburban racino northeast of Philadelphia. It does not have a hotel. Its patrons are almost entirely locals and those on day trips.

Valley Forge is a full-service resort with a hotel northwest of Philadelphia. The report compares these two properties based solely on smoking. It ignores that 2020 and 2021 were two of the worst years in history for hotel occupancy, something that clearly affected Valley Forge’s visitation, but not Parx.