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How the Pandemic Is Shaping Policies for Smoke-Free Air in Casinos

May 5, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck
Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Dan McCue)

Nathan Moose, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, developed permanent lung damage equivalent to that of a heavy smoker, despite never having smoked a day in his life.  

Moose was an employee of a casino for 11 years that allowed indoor smoking, and in 2013 when he was only 54 years-old suffered a premature death from years of breathing in second-hand smoke.   

“The pandemic caused casinos to rethink everything including implementing smoke free air,” said Bronson Frick from the Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, a non-profit organization which creates programs to prevent harmful effects of secondhand smoke and smoking among youth and adults.  

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all worksites, including casinos, implement smoke-free policies to protect the health of their workers, visitors and patrons. 

Last week, representative from the Office on Smoking and Health, Carissa Holmes, along with the Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, and casino gaming employees, addressed how to continue to help casinos adopt smoke-free policies in a media call on Smoke Free Casino Momentum. 

The push for smoke-free changes in the gaming industry dates back to 2006, with a report from the surgeon general that said there is no such thing as “risk-free” levels of second-hand smoke exposure. 

“The hospitality industry is particularly vulnerable here, so we know that people who work in restaurants, bars, and casinos, are exposed to second-hand smoke at much higher rates than the rest of the population,” Holmes said during the call. 

The Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights advocated for smoke-free indoor spaces in places like grocery stores, office spaces, or airplanes for over 45 years, with now 1,100 smoke-free casino and gaming venues across the US.   

“Nearly half of all states require casinos to be smoke-free, and it’s mostly tribes who have led the issue, often exceeding the standards of state regulated casinos in their areas,” said Frick.

There are currently 23 states, including three that have temporary policies (New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan) which created laws to make casinos smoke-free.  

Frick said that many tribal casinos, like the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, were the first to shut down casinos when the pandemic hit, and the first to reopen with new long-term smoke-free measures. 

“Tribal casinos fund everything for their tribal government, it’s a big deal to shut down on their own and to make the decision to reopen with a smoke-free indoor air policy. The speed in which tribes acted on this issue was amazing, it was a lot of lessons learned,” said Frick. 

One of the main lessons was how sovereign and commercial tribal casinos were able to expedite the demand for smoke-free casinos because they did not face the influence of competing stakeholders. 

“At the state level the tobacco lobbyist and allies have more influence than at the local level,” said Frick. 

The biggest gambling venues like MGM and Caesars Palace are located in states which draw in the most gambling tourism like Louisiana and Nevada, but these states have so far failed to set a smoke-free policy at the state-level.  

In Louisiana, it’s cities which have made the most strides in making casinos smoke-free.  

In April, New Orleans and Baton Rouge celebrated the sixth anniversary of the “Smoke Free Law,” which implemented smoke-free indoor air policies for all bars and casinos, including the Caesars Palace branch. 

In Vegas however, Caesars Palace continues to offer indoor smoking, as there are currently no state laws in Nevada for smoke-free indoor air policies.  

Although the State Clean Indoor Air Act of Nevada passed back in 2006, it made exceptions for gaming floors. 

“There’s a need to strengthen the law in Nevada, and encourage cities to move forward with local laws, and operators do this on their own,” said Frick. 

MGM Resorts did take their own measures to limit indoor smoking for patrons and employees, but only for their Park MGM location on the Vegas strip, and not for their other 28 established gaming/hotel locations.  

MGM declined request for comment to TWN, but in September of last year Anton Nikodemus, president and chief operating officer of CityCenter at MGM International told AP reporters that, “there is a high level of pent-up demand to have a non-smoking casino,” especially in Las Vegas and that the management made the Park facility non-smoking, “because of continued guest requests.”   

Studies show that 87% of the US population overall are non-smokers and most of casino staff are not smokers, and that three out of four casino patrons want to play in smoke-free casinos.

“Going smoke-free is a win for health and a win for business,” said Holmes.  

Before 2008, two-thirds of the revenue for Vegas casinos were from gaming, but now it’s flipped, and the non-gaming side of the business, which is smoke-free, has become the lionshare.  

Frick said this is a big shift for the gaming industry in how the money gets made, and how it will impact customers and employees.  

“Institutional shareholders, like Black Rock, have ESG investment metrics, and institutional investors have a role to play by asking hospitality and casino companies about their plans to expand smoke-free protections to all of their workforce,” said Frick.  

ESG metrics, also known as environmental, social and corporate governance metrics, provide in-depth research, ratings and best business practices to 97 of the top 100 largest money managers worldwide regarding risk exposure to things like climate change, pollution, or waste.  

“We need to incentivize safety, so we don’t go back to the way things used to be where casino workers were expendable in terms of their health. Now with respiratory safety concerns, smoke-free air is one important way to ensure these venues are safe,” said Frick. 

“We are still learning about COVID-19, but the science shows that current and former cigarette smoking can make it more likely that a person will get severely ill from COVID-19,” said Holmes. 

“I don’t think cities, states, and tribes should wait for Congress to act, and it’s an issue gaming companies can address now,” said Frick.  

“Implementing smoke-free policies during the COVID-19 pandemic reiterates that there has never been a better time to protect health in our communities,” said Holmes.  

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