Is this the time to ban smoking in casinos? By Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports July 27, 2020 at 6:00 pm Among the many things that the coronavirus has done, it has reopened the old debate on smoking in casinos. The traditional belief held that smokers gamble and gamblers smoke; in that reality, banning smoking in casinos was unthinkable. But in the time of the pandemic, the unthinkable has become thinkable. In the first few years of the 21st century, there was a concentrated, national effort to ban smoking from casinos. It was effective in many states, most notably New Jersey, Colorado, and Illinois, although in New Jersey the ban was not total. The movement ran out of steam during the Great Recession, there was little appetite in those days to cut into casino revenue and its attendant companion, state tax revenues. After the Great Recession, there was a period of rapid expansion of casino gaming. Many states needed more tax revenue: casinos appeared to be a golden goose. The expansion did not always include smoking. Ohio, Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland prohibited smoking in the legislation enabling casino gambling. Prohibiting smoking in a new jurisdiction has proven to be much easier than reversing a smoking policy in existing jurisdictions. The states that have had the longest history with gaming have resisted the trend, including Nevada, Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana, and Iowa. It was all a matter of framing: in new jurisdictions, it was framed as a health issue, while existing jurisdictions framed it as a business issue. This is a sensitive topic and one that is conflicting for me. First, full disclosure: I am a former smoker, a reformed smoker, a saved smoker. And, as we all know, those are the worse kind. Seemingly as soon as I put out that last cigarette, I started to resent smoking. All of a sudden, I hated the smell. That was a long time ago, however, and hopefully, since then my perspective has become a bit more objective and less prejudicial. After the Great Recession, everyone was focused on rebuilding the economy, and as a result, health issues took a back seat, including the movement to ban smoking in public places. This summer, we are again focused on restarting the economy, just as we were after the recession. But health issues now have a front-row seat; indeed, one could argue that they are, in fact, in the driver’s seat. The COVID-19 novel coronavirus is spread, the most current research indicates, from one person to the next through tiny droplets exhaled by an infected person. Wearing a mask is said to help contain the spread. When worn by an infected person, a mask slows or stops the spread of the droplets, and a non-infected person may gain some additional protection by wearing a mask, which keeps the infectious droplets from being inhaled. Some evidence indicates that the virus may also be spread through surface contact (e.g., touching an infected table and then touching one’s face), but the primary vehicle is the air. That fact has generated a great deal of concern for the quality of the air inside of buildings. Air conditioning and filtration systems are under intense scrutiny, and many have been updated or replaced. The combination of enhanced air quality sensitivity and mask wearing has led to a renewed interest in potentially banning smoking in all indoor spaces. The one place, more than any other, where smoking is still permitted in casinos in the traditional jurisdictions. Pennsylvania and New Jersey have imposed a total ban on smoking in the reopened casinos. Other jurisdictions have, thus far, hesitated to take that step, but it is being discussed. Even in states that still permit smoking, some casinos have banned smoking as part of the COVID-19 measures. An article by Mark Gruetze, published in CDC Gaming Reports on July 12, revealed that some 125 casinos have become nonsmoking during the pandemic. Some of those casinos are Indian casinos. Under the IGRA, the tribal casinos are subject to a tribal-state compact, but not other local laws and regulations. Therefore, Indian casinos can allow smoking in an otherwise nonsmoking state, like California. It should be noted, however, that not all tribes in California reopened with smoking; several enacted a smoking ban in an attempt to control the spread of the virus. All of the tribes in Iowa have done the same, even though the state’s commercial casinos still allow smoking. Even in Nevada, traditionally a very individualistic state, there is mounting pressure to at least prohibit smoking while the state is under its mandatory mask policy. If the bookies posted odds on Nevada going nonsmoking, they would likely still be quite long. But it could happen. In the end, it will depend on the framing. If the subject is debated only in the context of business, smoking wins; if the discussion switches to health, the nonsmokers win. The number of cases of COVID-19 in Nevada has continued to increase. In response, Governor Steve Sisolak, after having initially permitted bars to reopen, rescinded the order. At the time, he blamed people in bars for not complying with the mask policy and thereby spreading the virus. He could make the same decision about the casinos. That is a hard one, of course, since the state’s economy is built on gaming taxes. Las Vegas is even more dependent on gaming than the rest of the state, and two-thirds of Nevada’s population lives in Las Vegas. It is, therefore, always going to be an economic issue. However, if the virus continues to spread in Nevada, health and the economy are going to collide, and one of the casualties of that collision could easily be smoking. The timing is right. It will take at least a year before the Las Vegas casinos are back to normal, after all. Las Vegas is dependent on tourists and, as earnings reports from the airlines indicate, people are not currently flying to Las Vegas or anywhere else. Adding a smoking ban would lengthen the recovery period, but the issue could very neatly slot in amongst all of the other challenges that Nevada and Las Vegas will be facing over the next year. As the economy returns to a more normal condition, there will be some changes. There will likely be fewer restaurants, movie theaters, and other entertainment businesses, and those that do survive will have fewer employees, reduced offerings, and, probably, higher prices. And in casinos, smoking may no longer exist. As people reset their normality gauges, adjusting to smoke-free casinos will not be as big a deal as it would have been 20 years ago. Even in Nevada, you can no longer smoke in restaurants, retail stores, and other public buildings; smoking in public is so 20th century. Of course, that would benefit online gambling, too, but that’s a subject for another time.