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G2E Notebook: transitioning to smoke-free casinos may be less painful than initially thought

By Aaron Stanley

As a 30-year-old “millennial,” I have lived through the 180-degree shift in societal views toward smoking in public areas that has occurred over the past two decades.

Smoking was hardly celebrated when I was growing up, but it was tolerated in most places. Many restaurants had designated smoking and non-smoking seating areas. My sixth-grade library science teacher would always have a pack of Marlboros rolled up in his sleeve. Taxes on cigarettes were low, not even close to the current almost-extortionist rates.

But the tide of public perception has sharply turned against smoking over the past two decades. Today, public venues that allow smoking are about as rare as Bigfoot sightings, but casinos remain a notable exception in numerous jurisdictions.

I understand as well as anyone that gambling and smoking are like two pedals on the same bike. The celebratory rite of passage for my high school friends and me as we turned 18 was to drive two hours to our local northern Minnesota Indian casino to gamble and chain smoke.

While many casinos have since gone smoke-free either by choice or by legislative fiat, many others are reluctant to go down such a path for fear that their properties will be put at a competitive disadvantage. While the industry has collectively pushed back against smoking bans for many years, the writing is on the wall that all casinos will have to go smoke-free at some point.

A demonstration outside the Sands Expo Center last Tuesday by labor activists seeking to draw attention to the plight of casino employees who are continually exposed to second-hand smoke further reiterated that reality. This is a real issue. One of the cab drivers I met last week explained that she left a good-paying job as a table games dealer some years back because there was a patron who kept deliberately blowing smoke in her face while she was pregnant.

But I gleaned a couple of observations at this year’s G2E that suggest the transition to smoke-free may be less painful than commonly thought. The first is that for casinos, smoking isn’t as much of a public health issue anymore as it is one of market access. If the industry’s future is indeed predicated on finding innovative ways to attract the millennial crowd, then allowing smoking on the premises will almost certainly counteract those efforts by driving younger patrons away.

Smoking among young people just isn’t as “cool” as it used to be. A greater understanding of the health implications and the relentless messaging that we have been exposed to since our youth that “smoking is bad” has created a stigma around the behavior that only the hippest of the hipsters will ignore.

The second observation is that there are incredible new technologies available that can help improve the air quality inside casinos. Probably the most innovative thing I encountered last week came from AirTec, which released the Sweden-based QleanAir indoor smoking cabins into the U.S. market for the first time, at G2E.

These cabins look like enclosed phone booths (many people still remember what those are, or were). They have a built in air-filtration and ventilation system that sucks up and filters smoke and then spits out air that is even cleaner than it was when it first encountered the smoke. These cabins were tremendously effective: I stood at the door of one while somebody was smoking inside (a distance of 3-4 feet) and I couldn’t smell a thing.

Plasma Air International and Casino Air also had exhibits on the floor showing how their technology can be used to create cleaner air on the casino floor.

While these clean air solutions won’t come cheap, neither will the insurance premiums for employees continually exposed to second-hand smoke or the legal costs of casinos as employees take their fight to the courts.

Transitioning to smoke-free won’t be easy for casinos as long as it is still allowed in neighboring jurisdictions, but those who make the necessary investments and changes now will be rewarded in the future.