Steve Friess: Scheduled Discussion On Casino Smoking Sparks Hope Gambling Industry Will Finally Ban It

Written By Steve Friess on August 3, 2023 - Last Updated on February 16, 2024
Steve Friess State of Play It's Time To End Smoking In Casinos

State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.


In October, for the first time, a session of the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas will focus specifically on how to eliminate smoking from casinos. The panel includes Parx Casino CEO Eric Haulser, whose mammoth Pennsylvania casino has been smoke-free since re-opening after COVID and is none the poorer for it.

It’s long past time for the industry to listen to what these folks have to say. The idea that people can still light up and blow toxic, stinky clouds in the faces of fellow patrons and casino employees in 2023 is bizarre. Truth be told, it was bizarre in 2003 and 2013, too.

Says Cynthia Hallett, executive director of Americans for Nonsmoker Rights (ANR), and one of the panelists said:

“It’s a very big deal to finally have a panel at G2E during the regular conference time. Since the pandemic, there has been a lot more attention on looking at public health safety rules and, in particular, looking at exposure to secondhand smoke. We have been trying to put this on the agenda for a while just to have a discussion, to talking about what the cost is of keeping smoking in the casino. The evidence out there is that people prefer smoke-free casinos, players will come into smoke-free casinos.”

Nonetheless, the gambling business remains the big holdout among privately owned public spaces in America. To try to disentangle smoking and gambling, the ever-dwindling pro-smoker crowd insists, is to erode the last bastion of personal liberty.

I’m a serious Libertarian. Individual rights are extremely high on my priorities, even when that means giving people the ability to do things that could be harmful to themselves. I believe people should be able to use e-cigarettes anywhere they want to, provided they don’t emit unpleasant odors, because it’s none of my concern if you want to destroy your lungs. Heck, I believe NFL players should be able to bet on NFL games they’re not involved with, so don’t come at me as some Big Government liberal whacko.

But smoking in public is not about personal freedom. It is about the violation of other people’s personal freedom. It is an individual choosing to force strangers to inhale dangerous and unpleasant chemicals. The air we breathe in a public space is the most common resource we all share; it is oppressive to ruin it for the rest of us.

If the casino industry wants to be seen as truly respectable, it must snuff this out.

Casinos the piece de resistance to anti-smoking advocates

In the late 1970s when the ANR began its campaign to snuff out public smoking, gambling sites were at the bottom of the list of priorities. There also weren’t that many of them and most of them were in one of the most anti-regulation locales in the Western world, the state of Nevada.

But more than 40 years later, the vast majority of Americans oppose smoking in public, and more than 60 percent are protected by laws banning it in workplaces, restaurants, bars and parks, among other places.

Even when laws arrived in places like New Jersey, Nevada and Virginia to ban it, the casinos got absurd carve-outs. I’ve eaten at non-smoking restaurants that line casino floors in Vegas where the stench nonetheless permeated everything.

This is now, as noticed by the prevalence of gambling-related information on ANR’s website, a top focus of the organization. Hallett tells me:

“They stand out as a significant industry that is leaving a huge population of workers behind and being unfairly exposed.”

The explanation, of course, is that gambling and smoking go hand-in-hand, and preventing people from smoking at the craps table or slot machines would be bad for business.

That’s a myth, though. It’s the same lie that Big Tobacco and its lobbyists pushed about banning smoking inside bars and restaurants. Occasionally, there are brief blips in profitability when a new ban is implemented, but then people get used to it and cope. Last I checked, the nation still had lots and lots of bars and restaurants.

Also, Hallett points to research showing that the prevalence of smoking among gamblers is equal to the prevalence of smoking in the national population. It may seem like American casino-goers smoke more because it’s basically the only place you see people doing so flagrantly in the presence of other people anymore. That doesn’t make it true.

Casinos need to do this before litigation forces it on them

One reason the casino industry is so aggressive about funding and promoting problem gambling research and awareness is because they don’t want to be subjected to the expensive class-action lawsuits that have dogged Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and, to a lesser extent, Big Guns.

Big Gambling knows they offer a potentially addictive, possibly dangerous product, and they’ve never really denied that. So they do a lot to mitigate the public damage both because some executives believe they should and, also, so courts will see that they didn’t turn a blind eye in the pursuit of profit.

Yet they seem not to fear the exposure they face when a sympathetic jury gets ahold of a case involving casino employees sickened or killed by years of second-hand smoke that everyone knows is harmful. New resorts in Vegas regularly tout state-of-the-art ventilation systems and many pump perfume in to mask the smoke stink; smart lawyers should be able to point to that as evidence the casinos know the air is poison. How hard would it be to find scientists to prove the second-hand smoke is still getting around even if it doesn’t smell like it?

Enter Casino Employees Against Smoking Effects (CEASE), a group formed in 2021 in New Jersey that is spreading to Kansas, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. The effort is mostly aimed at lobbying both casino owners and legislators to fix this problem, but it’s easy to see a big law firm corralling them into filing suits.

After all, casinos are, to paraphrase Willie Sutton, where the money is.

The industry does itself no image favors by allowing itself to remain linked to deadly tobacco. Sure, smoking and gambling are both considered “vices,” but there are plenty of other so-called vices that casino owners don’t permit themselves to be connected to. There aren’t any strip clubs or pot dispensaries in any of them, either, so far as I know.

This isn’t a political issue anymore. There are hundreds of smoke-free casinos in blue states like California, Illinois and Colorado, as well as red states like Alabama, Montana, and North Dakota. There’s even a big one on the Las Vegas Strip, Park MGM, which seems to be doing just fine.

We all know where this is going. It’s a matter of time. Let’s make it sooner than later and save some lives.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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