Will Lake Tahoe casinos ever be smoke-free?
Last week Baton Rouge, Louisiana, passed a ban on smoking in bars and casinos, joining 13 other cities in the state, including New Orleans, that prohibit smoking in all workplaces. Nationwide, 28 states have enacted bans on smoking in enclosed public places, but with some exceptions — like casinos.
California was the first state to enact a statewide smoking ban in public spaces in 1995, including casinos (though these restrictions do not apply to casinos located on tribal lands). Meanwhile in neighboring Nevada, the statewide Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act was passed in 2006, prohibiting smoking in most public places, but allowing it to continue in casinos, strip clubs, brothels and bars that prohibit patrons under 21 years of age.
In the entire state of Nevada there is currently only one casino that is smoke-free — and it’s not because of public health.
The Fernley Nugget was built almost nine years ago, becoming the second smoke-free casino in Nevada at the time.
“I was curious,” said Scott Tate, general manager of the Fernley Nugget and a handful of other smoker-friendly casinos across Northern Nevada.
Nugget Casinos is not in the business of pushing for smoke-free facilities across the board, according to Tate, but saw a business opportunity in that particular market.
“It’s very popular among non-smokers and very unpopular with smokers,” said Tate.
As far as performance goes, the Fernley Nugget reinforces what the gaming industry has said all along: smoking and gambling go hand-in-hand.
“It doesn’t perform nearly as well as a smoking facility,” said Tate, who declined to give actual numbers, but said the difference is “substantial.”
Back when the Nugget first opened, Bill’s Casino Lake Tahoe was the only other smoke-free casino in the state. Hoping to capitalize on the health-conscious tourists from Northern California, the Harrah’s-owned casino went smoke-free in January 2007. Three years later the small casino shut its doors. Casino officials said the closure was a strategic move to better position Harrah’s and Harveys Lake Tahoe during the recession, not due to the decision to become smoke-free.
But that’s not how other Lake Tahoe casino operators see it.
Mike Bradford, CEO of Lakeside Inn and Casino, pointed to Bill’s closure as an example of why a smoke-free facility wouldn’t work in Lake Tahoe.
“We’ve talked about this ad nauseam for probably 15 years. The challenge that a casino faces is that there are many examples of casinos having tried this and they consistently fail — and that’s because there is a relatively high percentage of smokers that are gaming players. If they are not permitted to smoke in a location, they simply go somewhere else,” said Bradford.
Bradford said he would welcome statewide legislation mandating smoke-free casinos, but short of that, he would be putting his casino at a disadvantage.
“The problem is that overall, the industry would probably resist it, notwithstanding that from our point of view we would welcome it.”
And with revenues on the rise, the industry is not likely to take that gamble.
This May the Stateline casinos, which are the main source of gaming tax revenue for Douglas County, raked in $17.8 million — up from $13.7 million in the same month last year. For the year the Stateline casinos are up 7.18 percent with $202.5 million. Across the state, Nevada casinos earned more than $11.4 billion in the last fiscal year, up from $11.1 billion last year.
In states that amended their smoking bans to include casinos — like Illinois did in 2008 — studies have been conducted that reportedly prove the ban is to blame for a drop in revenue, while others refute this and point to the recession and changes in consumer spending.
Dr. Chris Pritsos, a professor of nutrition at the University of Nevada, Reno, has advocated for stricter anti-smoking laws in Nevada since the ‘90s. Back in 2006, prior to the vote on the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act, Pritsos conducted a study funded by the state health division examining the number of gamblers who smoke.
“There was a lot of misinformation put out to legislators about the percentage of gamblers who smoke. They were saying between 50 to 90 percent of gamblers smoked, depending on who you talked to. That didn’t seem reasonable to me,” said Pritsos.
Over a three-month period Pritsos and his team observed gamblers in Las Vegas, Reno/Sparks and Lake Tahoe. After observing nearly 18,000 gamblers, Pritsos found that the percentage of smokers was much closer to the percentage of the regular population that smoked in the U.S. at that time — 20.9 percent. In Lake Tahoe the percentage of gamblers that smoked was lower — 17 percent — followed by Las Vegas at 21.5 percent and Reno/Sparks at 22.6 percent.
“I think this notion that gamblers smoke more is just not true,” said Pritsos.
In the eleven years since that study was conducted, the national percentage of adult smokers in the U.S. has dropped to around 15.1 percent, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
So will Lake Tahoe see smoke-free casinos in the near future? According to a handful of emails from local casino spokesmen, the answer is, quite simply, no. But for anti-smoking advocates like Pritsos, the battle is not over yet.