When Park MGM reopened last September as the first smoke-free casino on the Las Vegas Strip, speculation arose over whether COVID-19 could push out smoking at gaming properties for good. Earlier that month, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy extended a smoking ban at Atlantic City casinos, deeming the activity too risky amid an airborne pandemic. New Jersey joined Pennsylvania and Michigan as the most prominent states to temporarily prohibit smoking at commercial casinos, while several tribal casinos implemented smoke-free policies upon reopening as well.
Yet it was MGM Resorts’ decision to go smoke-free at Park MGM that drew the most national attention. Even in the middle of the pandemic, for a major operator to ban smoking at a Strip casino seemed, to some, an infringement on what makes Las Vegas … Las Vegas. The city, after all, built its reputation on allowing people to do (nearly) whatever they want, whenever they want.
“There have been a couple of attempts at smoke-free casinos, but they failed,” says Michael Green, a historian at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “Granting that more people are aware of the dangers of tobacco, smoking seemed for many to go with drinking and other ways we abuse ourselves for fun.”
Vices are subject to cost-benefit analysis like anything else, and for decades state gaming regulators and operators have studied whether indoor smoking brings in customers or sends them out the door. Only in the past year have decision makers also been forced to factor in where smoking fits into the COVID-19 pandemic, including what additional risks it brings to guests and casino employees.
Before the pandemic, 20 states had laws requiring casinos to operate smoke-free indoors. In response to COVID-19, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan enforced temporary smoke-free policies last year, while Indiana regulators declared that Hoosier State casinos must designate an area for socially distanced smoking, eating and drinking. Several dozen tribal casinos reopened under smoke-free conditions, as did a few commercial casinos like Bally’s Corp. properties Tiverton and Twin River in Rhode Island.
“I would say the pandemic has accelerated the smoke-free trend that was already well underway,” says Bronson Frick, director of advocacy for the California-based American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation. “Prior to 2020, there were already nearly 800 smoke-free casinos and other gambling venues in the United States. Major gaming companies had already invested many billions of dollars into smoke-free gaming markets and they wanted those investments to succeed, and they have.”
Still, hundreds more gaming properties reopened with smoking allowed. That includes nearly all of Nevada’s 440-plus establishments that offer gaming, a testament to smoking’s influence in the Silver State. Nevada is one of 19 states without regulated smoking laws, and most of those states are in culturally conservative areas of the country.
Though smoking is widely recognized as a hazardous activity that can cause cancer, heart and lung disease and other long-term health ailments, approximately 14% of US adults smoke, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC warns that being a tobacco smoker increases your risk of severe illness upon catching COVID-19, but researchers have found little evidence that smoking itself increases the spread of the disease. However, “Second-hand smoke can propel viruses into the air from the nose and throat,” writes Panagis Galiatsatos, director of the Tobacco Treatment Clinic at Johns Hopkins University. Also, people who smoke indoors or outdoors must remove their mask, which enhances the chances that they will breathe or cough on another person. Casinos that permit smoking can fight the spread of second-hand smoke, however, through upgraded heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
When Circa Resort & Casino opened last October, Derek Stevens touted his property’s clear air system as an attraction for guests who smoke or don’t mind the presence of it. “Circa features the first HVAC system in a Las Vegas casino that cools the property from the ground up,” a Circa spokesperson told Gaming America. “The floor was raised 18 inches to allow for this system and the technique reduces energy usage and permits the resort to have a natural flow of air. The system also brings in 100% fresh air from the outside at all times and rarely recirculates indoor air.”
Smoke-free advocates like Frick say an improved HVAC system simply isn’t enough. “Ventilation systems don’t address the hazards of second-hand smoke,” Frick states. “So reducing but not eliminating the smoke doesn’t necessarily make it safer, it just gives the appearance that something has been done, or it might reduce the odor, but not address the health hazards.”
For decades operators assumed that casino goers were willing to accept the risk of spending hours in an indoor environment where smoking was allowed, if it meant they could indulge in gaming. Big gamblers have often been portrayed in popular culture as smokers, and to this day there remains the public perception that smoking and gaming go hand in hand. Academic studies as well as public polls have put that perception under the microscope in recent years, with results that challenge the long-held assumption of smoking’s popularity among gamblers. In a landmark 2008 study, University of Nevada, Reno professor Chris Pritsos observed approximately 14,000 gamblers at three Nevada sites and found four out of five were non-smokers. More recently, the American Lung Association conducted a survey in Indiana last year that showed 70% of state voters approve of prohibiting smoking in public places including casinos.
But when it comes to lawmakers and voters deciding whether to ban smoking at casinos, smoke-free supporters still find the chips stacked against them. In 2006 Nevadans passed a Clean Indoor Air Act that included prohibiting smoking tobacco in most indoor places like schools, restaurants and movie theaters. The bill excluded casinos.
“There really has been no concerted effort to ban smoking in casinos,” Green, the UNLV historian, says. “The most we have done was a ballot question in 2006. That year, casino operators, worried about the implications, backed another initiative question that essentially contradicted that one. The voters turned it down.”
Operators in Nevada feared that by removing smoking from casinos, they would see a sharp drop in revenue. Four years earlier, Delaware implemented a smoke-free law at its gaming properties as part of a 2002 Clean Air Act. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis reported that Delaware’s three gaming properties saw average monthly revenue fall 13% relative to the year preceding the ban. When Illinois implemented a smoke-free policy at commercial casinos in 2008, the same Federal Reserve Bank later filed a report that the state saw a 20% revenue drop following the ban.
For years operators and state regulators have weighed enforcing smoke-free policies that could diminish revenue, versus maintaining the status quo and exposing casino workers to second-hand smoke. These days, they must also take COVID-19 into account.
“The business model has traditionally built in worker exposure to second-hand smoke, worker sickness, disease, death, and it doesn’t have to be this way,” Frick says. “By moving smoking to outdoor areas, it’s good for health and also good for business.” When MGM Resorts decided to enforce such a philosophy at Park MGM last fall, the move generated mixed feelings in Las Vegas, even though the operator has already gone smoke-free at six other properties. The operator incorporated feedback from its guests when deciding to take smoke-free to one of its marquee Strip casinos, says Jenn Michaels, senior VP of public relations at the operator.
“The initial response from guests has been very positive as they enjoy having the option of a smoke-free casino-resort, which wasn’t previously available to them,” says Michaels. “Las Vegas has always been focused on offering a wide variety of options, which makes the destination so attractive to so many, and offering a smoke-free option creates yet another way for guests to experience the city in the ways they prefer.”
If Park MGM reports consistent or improved business as a smoke-free resort, it could encourage other operators to imitate MGM’s policies in Las Vegas, a city that up until a year ago never considered banning smoking at its casinos.
“The accelerated trend for smoke-free air has been one of the few silver linings during the pandemic,” Frick says. “It has reminded businesses of the importance of respiratory health.”