While the debate continues throughout the gambling industry whether no-smoking policies undermine casino profits, some operations have taken creative steps to address the issue. For example, in Maryland, where smoking is banned inside its five casinos, Horseshoe in Baltimore offers outdoor “smoking terraces,” where patrons can smoke and gamble. Noah Hirsch, Horseshoe’s vice president of marketing, said the decks provide patrons “more choices to explore how they like their entertainment. Definitely when the weather is nice out, we see better demand.”
The first casino in the state to offer the terraces, Horseshoe has seven smoking decks offering slots and one for smoking only. The concept was modeled on Ohio’s ThistleDown Racino, where a smoking patio opened in 2013. Horseshoe and ThistleDown both are managed by Caesars Entertainment. Horseshoe General Manager Chad Barnhill said ThistleDown’s outdoor gaming area was “really where we started to see the true demand for smoking and gaming areas outside of casinos. We saw a huge demand, we saw significant play on those games. We wanted to be able to put it into play here.”
Last month Rocky Gap Casino Resort in Cumberland received approval to add 30 slot machines to a smoking deck, which will be upgraded with a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. General Manager Scott Just said the move is a response to patrons’ requests and also a way to compete with casinos in West Virginia and Pennsylvania that allow smoking inside casinos, along with Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
Horseshoe officials said the terraces meet consumer demand. But health advocates still said they still are workplace hazards even though they’re located outdoors. Stephanie Steinberg, chairwoman of the advocacy group Smoke-Free Gaming of America, said, “Even though they call it a patio, somebody has got to work there. They say it’s outdoors, but do you breathe when you’re outdoors?”
The American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network also said secondhand smoke remains a hazard, even in casinos with modern ventilation systems. But that doesn’t faze MGM Resorts International, where spokesman Gordon Absher said, “With the benefit of modern HVAC and ventilation, we are able to provide our customers with an all but smoke-free environment because the ventilation systems clean the air so quickly and so thoroughly.”
However, MGM’s new casino complex under construction at National Harbor in Prince George’s County will fall under Maryland’s statewide smoking ban. Absher said no outdoor gaming areas are planned there.
Bronson Frick, associate director of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, noted, “Where there are smoking bans, it’s the result of statewide or local laws. In the case of Maryland, it had its statewide smoke-free law before casinos were added, so operators knew that when they were bidding.”
At the state’s largest casino, Maryland Live in Hanover, President Robert J. Norton said many customers appreciate the indoor smoking ban, but management is considering offering outdoor gaming-smoking patios. “If it makes sense we’ll do it,” Norton said.
Hollywood Casino in Perryville also is looking into the terraces, said General Manager Matthew Heiskell. Joe Cavilla, general manager at Ocean Downs in Berlin, said the racino “has thought about it” but already offers “a lot of outdoor areas that allow smoking.”
Studies have shown there is a behavioral link between smoking and gambling. One research report indicated smoking is more than twice as common among problem gamblers as among the general population. Another study found that smokers contribute a disproportionate share of slot machine revenue compared to nonsmokers. “Smoking is a powerful reinforcement for the trance-inducing rituals associated with gambling,” that study concluded.