The billboards on Interstate 15 might have gotten your attention: a drooping, ashy, phallic cigarette. The message? Smoking and secondhand smoke damage blood flow, which leads to all sorts of problems. But what?s interesting is the target marketing here. Smoke-Free Gaming of America wants to change the way business is done in Las Vegas.
The implicit question raised in those cheeky billboards is this: Smoking is banned in restaurants, movie theaters and indoor arenas. Why is it still permitted in Nevada casinos? The short answer: because casinos were exempted from the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act, which voters approved in November 2006.
There?s long been a link between gambling and smoking. It?s one of the accepted truisms of casinos: If allowed to smoke, gamblers will play more and longer than if they are required to leave the gaming floor. For that reason, outlawing smoking in casinos has long been a nonstarter.
But other states have forced their gambling venues to go smoke-free. California card rooms, Colorado casinos, Deadwood, South Dakota, gambling halls? You can?t light up in any of them. But Delaware?s smoking ban in 2002 led to an estimated 12 to 16 percent drop in revenues. Illinois casinos saw an estimated drop of more than 20 percent after that state?s 2008 smoking ban.
Those kinds of numbers are enough to end the conversation in Nevada. The industry still hasn?t recovered from the recession, and that kind of revenue decline would likely send several casinos into insolvency. Revel, an Atlantic City casino that famously opened as smoke-free, dipped into bankruptcy and recently rescinded its ban, even promoting itself as having the city?s ?largest contiguous smoking section.?
But smoking bans aren?t always bad news?if you?ve got patience and staying power. Within three years, Delaware?s ?racinos? had not only recovered from their no-smoking slump, they?d made more money than before the ban. And Macau, the world?s largest gaming market, enacted a partial ban this year: 50 percent of all public areas, including gaming floors, must be smoke-free. The new regulation doesn?t seem to have slowed down Macau casinos: Through June, the enclave?s gaming revenues are up more than 15 percent for the year. That?s the kind of growth Las Vegas executives, at this point, can only dream about.
It?s also worth mentioning that Ohio, Maryland and Massachusetts?three new gaming jurisdictions in which Wynn Resorts, MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment are either operating or hoping to soon?bar smoking in casinos.
?The fact that Las Vegas-based casino companies already own and operate 100 percent smoke-free casinos in other states and in other countries further validates our position that Nevada will be smoke-free in its casinos sooner rather than later,? says Stephanie Steinberg, chairwoman of Smoke-Free Gaming of America. She points to the higher costs of smoking, including employee health care and maintenance, as one of the reasons that, she hopes, Nevada casinos will eventually see the light.
This can happen in two ways: Casinos can voluntarily choose to go smoke-free, as the Fernley Nugget in Northern Nevada has, or they can be forced to abide by a state law banning smoking in all public places. Given the industry?s lobbying clout, the latter doesn?t seem a likely option.
But the voluntary route isn?t entirely implausible. MGM Resorts has two non-smoking properties in its Strip portfolio: The Signature at MGM Grand and Vdara. Both, significantly, are non-gaming hotels. With an increased emphasis on ?green? practices, it may only be a matter of time before a Strip casino declares its main gaming area smokeless. Once that happens, it is in the hands of the customers. If they reward that casino with their business, others will follow suit.
If not, Nevada, or at least its casinos, will remain ?California?s smoking section,? as the joke goes. But with smoking increasingly restricted around the world, we just may see at least one Strip casino butting out.