Casinos and smoking have always been joined at the hip, but one of the many legacies of the COVID-19 pandemic could be the eradication of smoke-filled gambling dens.
When commercial and tribal casinos began re-opening after the coronavirus pandemic shutdown of 2020, smoking bans proliferated, and the sky did not fall.
"Quite simply, COVID changed everything (related to smoking and casinos)," said Andrew Klebanow, a co-founder of C3 Gaming, a casino consulting consortium in Las Vegas.
C3 Gaming released a report this year showing customers returned to casinos after smoking bans primarily because they enjoy gambling.
"About 160 Indian gaming casinos chose to keep smoking bans in place," Klebanow said.
"The fear that business would drop was quickly dispelled as gaming volume quickly achieved pre-pandemic levels."
The C3 Gaming report included results from Pennsylvania where the Mount Airy Casino Resort maintained a smoking ban and revenue increased slightly, while its competitor, Mohegan Sun Pocono, permitted smoking and revenue showed a slight decline.
So it came as a surprise when Mount Airy, which lies almost equidistant between Philadelphia and New York City, recently lifted its smoking ban without explanation.
“The Mount Airy team won’t be sharing any further comment/detail about the smoking policy at this time,” Olivia McCormick, a public relations representative of the casino, told VIXIO GamblingCompliance in an email on Wednesday (August 24).
On Tuesday (August 23), Americans For NonSmokers’ Rights (ANR) blasted Mount Airy’s reversal.
“This is exactly why we need state laws that permanently close casino smoking loopholes — so that casino workers’ health is not subject to the whims of their bosses,” ANR president and CEO Cynthia Hallett said in a news release.
Mount Airy’s refusal to disclose its reasons for discarding the smoking ban “shows they are clearly not proud of this decision,” Hallett said.
Rivers Casino in Philadelphia has maintained its smoking ban partly because of the city's changing mandates on COVID-19.
"An outdoor patio has been designated for smokers and guests have complied without issue. Rivers Casino Philadelphia continues to monitor feedback," said a casino representative who requested anonymity.
Gone are the days when Sheldon Adelson, who was chairman of Las Vegas Sands until his death last year at the age of 87, demanded a change in Spain’s health laws in 2013 to allow smoking in his proposed casino Eurovegas.
Spain did not accommodate Adelson’s demands, and Eurovegas was never built.
Casino management is being pressed more than ever to choose between the health of employees or money from customers who enjoy smoking while they gamble.
Democratic Governor Phil Murphy has said he will sign a bill to ban smoking in New Jersey casinos if it ever reaches his desk.
But the highest ranking member of the New Jersey legislature is by no means confident a non-smoking bill for casinos will pass anytime soon.
“There’s more to it than just, ‘Do I think people should smoke indoors?' I do not," New Jersey Senate President Nicholas Scutari, a Democrat, told NJ.com in July.
“I don’t like smoke. I’ve never been a smoker. But there are economic things; there are other items at work there. We’ve got to work with the industry, work with the advocates.”
The American Gaming Association (AGA) faces a similar quandary, with some of its member casinos supporting smoking bans while others not.
This lack of consensus makes the AGA neutral on smoking bans.
Nevertheless, just like buffets, smoking in casinos appears to be going the way of the Dodo Bird in the post-pandemic era.
“The pandemic has caused a fundamental reversal …[casinos] across the country are prioritizing team member health benefits and the bottom-line financial impacts of a no-smoking policy,” David Schwartz, a history professor and gaming historian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told Buddy Frank of CDC Gaming Reports.
“I think that COVID-19 has accelerated an existing trend in the industry away from smoking.”