Why Some Casinos Are Reopening Smoke-Free

When U.S. casinos began to reopen last week, some that once accommodated cigarette use had shifted to smoke-free. In light of Covid-19—a respiratory disease—could this this the start of a new trend? Is it an opportunity for casinos to take this step?

Why Some Casinos Are Reopening Smoke-Free

Ten weeks ago, casinos nationwide began shutting down. When they began to reopen last week, some that once welcomed smokers had become smoke-free.

In recent years, casinos have managed to wrangle exceptions to public no-smoking rules because of the clear connection between gambling and smoking. Casinos had smoking sections to keep a significant percentage of their customer base. They built no-smoking sections to hold onto the rest.

Nevertheless, 800 casinos in 20 U.S states are completely smoke-free. If groups like Smokefree Casinos (an initiative of the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation) or California’s Clean Air Project get their way, eventually that will be true of them all.

One argument says the demographic operators hope will replace aging boomers as the customer mainstay—millennials—are strongly anti-smoking.

At last October’s Global Gaming Expo (G2E), before Covid-19 was a blip on the radar, Cynthia Hallett, president and CEO of Smokefree Casinos, urged gaming companies to adopt no-smoking policies to attract younger players. “Nine out of 10 young adults are non-smokers,” she said. “Millennials favor doing business with values-driven companies. These trends can also impact a casino’s ability to attract future customers and be an employer of choice for a large and diverse workforce.”

Smokefree Casinos also cites a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that 92 percent of Americans over 65 don’t smoke.

One casino that went smoke-free in direct response to Covid-19 outbreak makes another point: the coronavirus is a respiratory disease, and smoking weakens the body’s defenses against respiratory ailments.

That casino is Angel of the Winds Casino Resort near Arlington, Washington, about 45 miles north of Seattle. It became the first Indian casino in the Evergreen State to ban smoking when it reopened May 13.

Travis O’Neil, general manager of the 15-year-old casino, told GGB News the policy germinated among staff as they formulated plans for reopening.

“Non-smoking has always been the subject of meetings,” he said. “Do we push non-smoking, instead of putting it in the back corner where it’s not easy to get to and you have to walk through smoke to get there?”

Those discussions took on special urgency with Covid-19. “This disease affects the respiratory system, I’ve read that smokers have a great chance of going downhill if they get it,” said O’Neil.

“When we shut down in March 17 we had to go through the furlough process for 614 employees,” he said. “We maintained communication with everyone. Our executive staff started talking about this. I wanted us to be one of the first to reopen. Although Governor Jay Inslee has a ‘Stay Home Stay Healthy’ order, tribes can make their own decisions.”

The team visited other “essential” stores to see their best practices for protecting customers and employees. “We took that to the maximum, with Plexiglas dividers,” said O’Neil. “We wanted to make sure we hit every point. We’re requiring masks on our floor from team members and patrons. We know if you’re smoking, you’re not going to be wearing a mask. It came down to the health and safety of our team members.”

The team also was mindful of patrons who aren’t ready to come back for safety reasons.

“I’ve been in the industry since I was 18 and smoking, gambling and drinking has always been a component,” said O’Neil. “Does it have to be that? I don’t think so. You hear about taking profits over people. We took a serious look and said it’s time to make a decision. We took it to the tribe. I expected a discussion or, ‘Let’s think about it,’ but they were behind it 100 percent, and here we go.”

Were there disgruntled smokers? “Before we opened, we made the announcement. It was the largest Facebook post we’ve ever had, and it was 90 percent positive.”

Of course, some people opposed the change. “We looked at it as the health and safety for our team members and our guests. I believe two other casinos have followed us into this smoke-free environment.”

It’s also a question of allowing a small minority to set the agenda, “to have 10 percent to 15 percent of the people who do smoke affecting the building,” he said.

Will the Angel of the Winds ultimately save money from its new policy?

“Time will tell,” said O’Neil. “We’ll track what it does to our whole system. It also went back to our ability to focus on the cleaning aspect. When you have to focus on ashes and butts, it takes away from cleaning and sanitizing. Now we can focus on sanitizing slots and all the high-touch areas.”

Meantime, the casino’s reopening was “nuts,” said O’Neil. “It was very interesting. We maintain a 50 percent capacity, masks and cleanliness. We take it very seriously. And people are very happy.”

California has the largest number of Indian casinos in the nation. According to Susan Jensen, executive director of California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA), “We don’t have any tribes who are smoke-free in California, although that has (temporarily) changed with Covid-19 guidelines at some. We did have two tribes try smoke-free, but due to customer demand, it did not work out.”

Narinder Dhaliwal is director of California’s Clean Air Project. Typically, she’s based in Sacramento, but lately she’s been operating from her home in Yuba City. The Clean Air Project, funded by the California Department of Public Health through taxes on tobacco, was established in 2005 as an effort to work with counties, cities and tribes around all aspects of second-hand smoke.

“California has had a state law allowing no smoking indoors for over 20 years in bars and restaurants,” told GGB News. “The exceptions are the sovereign nations, which do not have to adhere to state law.”

In 2008, the Clean Air Project became an associate member of CNIGA. “It’s an opportunity to interact with tribal leaders to bring the message that, in California, tribal casinos are the last place where individuals can go indoors to smoke,” said Dhaliwal (with exceptions, such as cigar lounges).

“More and more, business are restricting smoking in outdoor patios. A lot of cities and counties are moving to no smoking outdoors, where food is served, or in outdoor areas and on sidewalks.”

As a member of the CNIGA, the group has received permission from tribes to conduct data collection, including measuring air quality for two studies, which Dhaliwal was instrumental in publishing.

She also points to a position document on environmental tobacco smoke developed for the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) in 2010—and reaffirmed in 2019—which states, “The preponderance of credible evidence links passive smoking to specific diseases and other adverse health effects in people. No cognizant authorities have identified an acceptable level of environmental tobacco smoke exposure, nor is there any expectation that further research will identify such a level.”

“Our data showed that air quality was very, very bad indoors (if) the number of smokers was 9 percent to 11 percent at any one time,” said Dhaliwal. “A very low number of smokers cause air quality to be extremely low. It begs the question, why continue to allow smoking?”

She cited two California casinos—Spotlight 29 Casino in Coachella and Bear River Casino in Loleta—that she knows will be reopening smoke-free. “I envision there will be more.”

Asked about non-smoking floor and smoking floors in casinos, she declared, “There are no safe levels of expose to second-hand smoke. Allowing smoking indoors with separate ventilation is the only way to do that. Look at Sycuan. When they added their expansion last year, it was completely non-smoking. There are protections. Unless there are separate ventilation systems, and doors to completely separate buildings, it doesn’t work. Non-smoking is only non-smoking if it’s completely separately ventilated.”

Her organization “is here to do some research for tribes at their request, to provide education and information so they’re better informed—not just for opening but moving forward. It’s not that tribal nations don’t care. They do care about employees and guests. It boils down to economic necessity to keep the tribal members’ health care, public safety and education.”

Las Vegas itself doesn’t seem to be moving very far toward non-smoking as a norm. When the Nevada Gaming Control Board issued its reopening guidelines for casinos, a ban on smoking wasn’t mentioned.

Though the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act prohibits smoking in most indoors spaces, casinos are the exception. “Smoking and vaping are still allowed in these areas; however, a casino operator can designate separate rooms or areas within the establishment as nonsmoking or nonvaping. For example, many casinos now voluntarily offer smoke-free poker rooms.” The legislature would need to make any changes to that.

Smokefree Casinos is having better luck convincing casinos in other areas. In Hallett’s words, “In the past, casinos and other entertainment venues got a pass as people just accepted that they had to put up with second-hand smoke in that environment, but no more. Today we have nearly 800 smoke-free casinos and other gambling venues in the United States. We still have a long way to go, but we’re making progress.”

For a list of non-smoking casinos complied by American Non-Smokers Rights, go to https://no-smoke.org/reopening-smokefree-the-new-normal/.

Articles by Author: David Ross

David D. Ross edits the Escondido Times-Advocate and Valley Roadrunner newspapers. A freelance journalist for over 40 years, Ross is knowledgeable about San Diego's backcountry and has written on tourism in Julian, Palomar Mountain, San Diego Safari Park—and the area’s casinos. He has a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University.