|By Arnold M. Knightly, Las Vegas
Review-JournalMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Apr. 8, 2007 - Gaming companies would rather not discuss the prospect of Nevada casinos being forced to go nonsmoking in the near future.
One local gaming company spokeswoman said when asked about the possibility that "the company wasn't going to deal with conjecture."
But the writing may be on the wall.
In November, voters passed the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act, which banned smoking in most public spaces, including restaurants, lounges and bars with food service, retail and convention areas as well as hotel lobbies. The change didn't affect casino floors, nightclubs and stand-alone bars without food service.
The casinos exemption may one day drift away like so much smoke, Spectrum Gaming Group gaming analyst Joseph Weinert suggested.
"I think Nevada, like every other state-regulated gaming jurisdiction, is a matter of when not if," said Weinert.
Bill's Lake Tahoe went smoke-free in December and now promotes itself as "Tahoe's Only Non-Smoking Casino."
Smoke-free casinos have been tried in Nevada before. In 1991, the then-economically troubled, now-closed Silver City casino banned smoking. The decision to turn Bill's into the state's only current nonsmoking casino was also one more of economics than health concerns.
"It was a decision made locally just to try it out and try to rejuvenate the business over at Bill's," said John Packer, spokesman for Harrah's Entertainment in Lake Tahoe.
Bill's is one of three gaming properties Harrah's Entertainment owns in the Northern Nevada border region. Packer said that Bill's had been struggling financially compared with the company's other two properties there, Harrah's Lake Tahoe and Harveys Lake Tahoe.
Bill's, a casino-only establishment, has 18,000 square feet of casino space and no real restaurant, except for a Subway sandwich shop. Management felt the property needed to try different ideas to lure customers. So the casino went smoke-free and added single-deck blackjack, 20 times odds on craps and a piano bar.
Foot traffic has increased at Bill's, Packer said, but he added that it would be hard to single out nonsmoking as the sole reason why. He also said people shouldn't see Bill's smoke-free casino as a test program that could spread to other for Harrah's Entertainment properties throughout the state.
Casino floors are still a haven for smokers, but a study last year by the University of Nevada, Reno found that about only one in five gamblers in Nevada smokes.
Chris Pritsos, chairman of the university's nutrition department, said he undertook the study to learn how many gamblers smoke.
"Whenever you start talking about a smoking ban, the gaming lobbyists come out say '70 percent of our clientele smoke,' " Pritsos said. "I've been before the state Legislature and heard them make that statement. I thought it was important to find out what the real numbers were."
The study, which surveyed 17,723 gamblers throughout the state from August 2006 through October 2006, found 21.5 percent of gamblers in Las Vegas smoke, while 22.6 percent smoke in Reno-Sparks and 17 percent smoke in Lake Tahoe.
Data for the Las Vegas casinos was gathered during a three-day period in August split between Strip and off-Strip properties. The study found that 20.3 percent of gamblers smoke at Strip properties while 26.3 percent of gamblers smoke off-Strip.
Pritsos said he had expected a number between 30 percent and 40 percent, but added that the study's figures are near the general United States population average of 20.9 percent. Pritsos said he hasn't received any comments from the gaming industry, but the state Legislature has asked for a copy.
The study comes as more state legislatures around the country grapple with smoke-free casinos.
The Illinois Senate on March 29 approved a statewide smoking ban that would extend to the riverboat gambling halls and racetracks. If the state House approves the measure in May, the ban would take effect Jan. 1. An amendment was introduced proposing a three-year phase-in for the casinos and racetracks, but it was not adopted.
In March, Colorado lawmakers amended a House bill extending the state smoking ban to casinos by pushing the effective date to July 1, 2008. The bill was approved by the Senate but must return to the House for consideration.
The 11 casinos in Atlantic City have until April 15 to comply with a new law that requires 75 percent of the gaming floor to be nonsmoking.
Harrah's Entertainment and Columbia Sussex Corp. are building smoking lounges for their properties but fear the properties will take an economic hit.
Weinert said some gaming executives worry that if smoking is illegal in casinos in one area, customers will go elsewhere to gamble and smoke.
"What really concerns the industry, beyond a direct economic hit, is the uneven playing field," Weinert said. "If Las Vegas operators knew the moment they went smoke-free that the Indian casinos in California and Arizona also went smoke-free, I think they would be less concerned."
Harrah's Entertainment spokeswoman Debbie Munch said her company lets patrons request a smoke-free table at any of its eight local properties. But a public relations manager overseeing two of the properties didn't know of the policy.
Most of the poker rooms and some bingo rooms in Las Vegas are smoke-free.
When asked about the smoking issue and what the future could hold for Nevada gaming, spokeswomen at Station Casinos and Wynn Las Vegas pointed out their latest properties have state-of-the-art ventilation systems that minimize the effect of smoking patrons on nonsmoking ones.
But studies seem to rebut such a claim. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning released a position paper in August 2005 saying "no ... engineering approaches, including current and advanced dilution ventilation or air-cleaning technologies, have been demonstrated or should be relied on to control health risks from (environmental tobacco smoke)."
Furthermore, a June study published by U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona said, "Restrictions on smoking can control exposures effectively, but technical approaches involving air cleaning or greater exchange of indoor with outdoor air cannot."
Weinert said it would surprise him if smoke-free casinos in Nevada happened quickly.
"Given the size of the gaming industry in Nevada relative to any other industry, I would not be surprised to see Nevada be the last to take this up," Weinert said. "Certainly every gaming executive recognizes they will be smoke-free at some point. But they have a fiduciary duty to, in the meantime, to maximize their revenues."
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