Will this be the year the gaming industry clears the air on smoking? By John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports June 22, 2022 at 6:13 pm There is much to celebrate in the gaming industry these days. From the easing of pandemic restrictions to the proliferation and popularity of legalized sports betting, success stories are abundant out there. But there’s still a haze on the horizon. At a time most businesses have been smoke-free for years, either by government edict or healthful enlightenment, casinos in Nevada still let customers light up. I suspect it has a little to do with tradition and a lot to do with competition. American Gaming Association CEO Bill Miller, in an interview last year with Play NJ, walked the industry line about as straight as possible. He said, “The AGA does not have an official position on smoking. I will say, I’ve certainly heard from different operators that smoking bans during COVID haven’t led to a decrease in business. And that has been one of the areas that people had been previously concerned about.” The issue is more controversial in some areas than others. In New Jersey, where Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights and other groups are most politically active, the voices of employees and players hoping to clear the air are increasingly being heard. They point to a dramatic increase in casino gaming revenues during the pandemic, when a smoking ban was in place in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as a sign that the industry can prosper without smoking being permitted on the floor. In New Jersey, smokers have to take a break from the action to light up in an approved area. In Connecticut, the activity is prohibited. In fact, at least 157 tribes have banned smoking in their highly successful casinos. But the most visible casinos in the country, those found on the Las Vegas Strip, aren’t exactly rushing toward eliminating smoking. Officials cite dramatic improvements in air-purification systems in their defense of the status quo. It’s a defense their critics dispute. A fresh study from C3 Gaming shines another light on the issue – and it’s making Las Vegas casinos appear well behind the curve, according to the report. Among its findings: The pandemic changed gamblers’ habits and their comfort level with a smoky atmosphere. From the report: “An examination of gaming revenues in commercial casinos post pandemic reveals that those casinos that implemented smoking prohibitions did not experience any drop in revenues or lost market share to nearby casinos that continued to offer smoking environments. COVID-19 caused a radical change in consumer attitudes towards smoking in casinos. Interviews with tribal casino management also revealed that profitability is increasing due to reduced maintenance costs.” Interestingly, the report questions a commonly accepted belief in the industry that slot-machine revenues sag when smoking is prohibited. “It was also known that a slot machine in a smoking area generated more money than a machine in a non-smoking area. In fact, there is not a slot director in the industry that would have refuted that statement prior to the pandemic. Electronic gaming devices in non-smoking areas have consistently underperformed compared to machines located in smoking areas. What is never mentioned are some of the underlying factors, including the mix of games found in non-smoking areas, their location of non-smoking areas within the casino, and their general lack of energy compared to gaming areas in the center of the casino.” Nonsmokers’ rights groups and industry critics are raising their voices, but can the real issue be reduced to something as simple as customer preference? In a column in The Nevada Independent, Michael Schaus points to the recent report’s downside, as he sees it: the potential for government intervention. “Even among casinos, indoor smoking may not be long for this world. However, it’s a policy that shouldn’t be decided by pandering politicians, public-health activists, or state regulators. It should be decided by the people who matter the most to the industry: those who actually show up to spend their hard-earned money at slot machines and table games.” There’s another factor that I think is worth considering: whether COVID didn’t give the industry an ideal opportunity to move forward on the smoking issue with neither the government nor increasingly isolated smokers breathing down its neck. Will this be the year that the gaming industry clears the air on casino smoking? It’s a question people are asking more than ever.