Rhode Island Legislators Push To End Casino Smoking Ban Exemption In 2024

Written By Derek Helling on December 29, 2023
teresa tanzi speaking

Political will is a fickle and often illogical phenomenon. The conversation in the public sphere involving members of the Rhode Island legislature regarding an exemption to the state’s indoor smoking ban for casinos is a great representation of those qualities.

While two members of the Rhode Island legislature have vowed to launch another effort to try to end that exemption in 2024, a powerful person in that body seems determined to resist such efforts. The arguments that person makes against that change fall flat upon inspection.

Rhode Island legislators revive casino smoking exemption ban bills

Currently, the Bally’s Tiverton and Bally’s Twin Rivers casinos in Rhode Island hold special privileges in many ways. In addition to having rare licenses to offer gambling to guests, those facilities are among the few places in Rhode Island where people can smoke indoors without violating the state’s ban on such activity.

That’s something that two members of the Rhode Island legislature have been trying to change for years. Rhode Island Rep. Teresa Tanzi and Rhode Island Senator V. Susan Sosnowski have both filed bills to end the exemption for casinos for years.

According to a Boston Globe post by Edward Fitzpatrick, the pair will do so again in the 2024 legislative session. During the 2023 session, those pieces of legislation did not make it out of committee in either the House or the Senate.

It’s unclear whether the bills will proceed any further in 2024. The leader of the Rhode Island Senate could be an obstacle if so.

Senate President could resist changes in 2024

Fitzpatrick further reports that Rhode Island Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio is maintaining his opposition to ending the casino exemption for the state’s indoor smoking ban. Ruggerio, who Fitzpatrick states smokes himself, lists a potential loss of revenue for the state as his primary reason for that sentiment.

“As I told the unions: Give us the $15 million that we are going to lose over here, $15 million or more,” Ruggerio said. “They haven’t ponied up yet.”

Ruggerio also disagrees with advocates of this change over the premise that instead of losing revenue, the two Bally’s casinos would gain in that department if they eliminated smoking entirely. Instead, Ruggerio says Rhode Island residents who visited Encore Boston Harbor returned to Rhode Island casinos because of the lack of smoking availability at Encore.

Tanzi refutes that directly, citing research that shows “non-smoking properties appear to be performing better than their counterparts that continue to allow smoking.” These arguments are perfect examples of confirmation bias and how in politics, the debate is less about who is right and who is wrong but more about preserving existing power structures.

The weaknesses in the argument against ending the exemption

In making his argument that the state would lose revenue if casinos eliminated smoking, Ruggerio makes some convenient claims while ignoring other facets of the situation entirely. His comment about forthcoming legal real-money online casino play as it relates to smoking in casinos is a perfect example.

Fitzpatrick quotes Ruggerio discussing the recent gaming expansion in this context.

“If you have iGaming, you can stay home. You don’t have to go up there,” he said. “If that (smoking) offends you, you can stay home and gamble.”

With this comment, Ruggerio is ignoring that the opposite is also the case. If people who smoke in the state want to gamble while they smoke, they can stay home and play on the soon-to-launch Bally’s online casino app.

Furthermore, his statement that Rhode Island gamblers prefer a casino that allows smoking over one that does not lacks proper sourcing. At best, it’s hearsay. It appears that Ruggerio has fallen victim to confirmation bias in that he sought reinforcement of the view he already held and ignored all evidence to the contrary.

Ruggerio’s argument about the loss of revenue brings online casino play back into the conversation. While Ruggerio insists that the labor unions pushing for an end to the smoking exemption should replace any lost revenue, he ignores his comments about new revenue from online casino win.

Ruggerio’s earlier statements about gaming revenue

In August, Ruggerio told PlayUSA that the legislature is “looking at iGaming as a revenue generator.” At that time, Ruggerio estimated that the gaming expansion would bring in $220 million in tax revenue over the next five years.

That equates to an average of $44 million a year. That’s almost three times what Ruggerio believes the state could lose if there is no smoking allowed anywhere at the two Bally’s casinos.

It’s interesting how the coming availability of online casino play in Rhode Island is an argument against ending the smoking exemption but suddenly disappears when Ruggerio is discussing revenue from gaming in the state.

Moreover, Ruggerio’s comments completely skirt around the most important issue; the health of casino workers. While current law requires non-smoking sections and smoking sections to be completely separated from each other with separate ventilation systems, that is irrelevant for workers in the smoking section.

As Sosnowski told Fitzpatrick, “We have to make a compelling argument that health is more important than the almighty dollar.” Such an argument has yet to sway Ruggerio. At the same time, it’s fair to ask whether any amount of data or stories of casino workers suffering from the effects of secondhand smoke will move him.

Photo by Charles Krupa / AP Photo
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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is the assistant managing editor of PlayUSA. Helling focuses on breaking news, including finance, regulation, and technology in the gaming industry. Helling completed his journalism degree at the University of Iowa and resides in Chicago

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