Making the News

Wall Street Journal

Originally Published:Friday, September 19, 2008

"Gamblers like to smoke and drink while they gamble. You've got three co-dependent bad behaviors that go together," said Harvey Perkins, a senior vice president at Spectrum Gaming, a gambling consulting company in Linwood, N.J. Mr. Perkins, a former casino executive who has studied the impact of smoking bans on gambling revenue in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, has the ultimate insider's perspective: He's a smoker who likes to play.

"I've never experienced gambling without smoking," he said. When a full smoking ban goes into effect in Atlantic City, N.J., casinos in October, he figures he will have to interrupt his gambling to have a cigarette. "I'll get angry if I'm on a hot streak."

Mr. Perkins said that break may persuade gamblers to walk away: "The joy of playing is that you're focused on the game. All of life's hassles disappear, and the rest of the world stops for a little bit. But once you have to get up for the desire to have a cigarette, that's it, you're leaving the zone. You're pulled back into reality. And it's easy to walk away."

The House Takes a Hit as Casinos Ban Cigarette Smoking
Several States Are Kicking the Habit, But Gamblers Leave Slots for Nicotine

By Tamara Audi
Wall Street Journal

OLIET, Ill. At one point during her Saturday evening on Harrah's casino barge anchored outside Chicago, Tensi Beavers needed a cigarette. But Illinois had recently banned smoking in casinos. So Ms. Beavers did something that is making gambling executives choke on their smoke-free casino air: She walked away from her game.

"I like to play and smoke, but you can't, so...," Ms. Beavers said, clutching a pack of cigarettes and searching for the smokers' lounge, located just off the casino floor but too far from the nearest slot machine to gamble.

To players like Ms. Beavers, smoking and gambling go hand in hand cigarette in one hand, slot-machine button in the other. "You take a pull and hope you hit it," Ms. Beavers said.

A woman smokes while playing slot machines at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City.

Now, that ritual is being upended in several states where casino smoking bans have been implemented or are on the way. The bans are hitting casinos at a time when larger economic woes such as airline flight reductions, cash-strapped consumers and the credit crisis are driving down casino revenues from Las Vegas to Connecticut.

"The smoking ban is having a major impact," said Tom Swoik, head of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association. Casinos in Illinois have posted double-digit declines in revenue since the smoking ban took effect in January.

Casino officials say steep revenue losses threaten to force staff cuts, and drastically reduce state tax revenues generated by casinos. They point to a 2005 research paper by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis that says Delaware's "racinos" racetracks with slot machines and video poker saw their revenue decline by $94 million a year since a smoking ban was implemented there in 2002.

Nicotine, an old casino-industry ally, is now proving to be a powerful rival. Even relatively quick smoke breaks interrupt the in-the-zone mentality critical to keeping gamblers in play.

"Gamblers like to smoke and drink while they gamble. You've got three co-dependent bad behaviors that go together," said Harvey Perkins, a senior vice president at Spectrum Gaming, a gambling consulting company in Linwood, N.J. Mr. Perkins, a former casino executive who has studied the impact of smoking bans on gambling revenue in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, has the ultimate insider's perspective: He's a smoker who likes to play.

"I've never experienced gambling without smoking," he said. When a full smoking ban goes into effect in Atlantic City, N.J., casinos in October, he figures he will have to interrupt his gambling to have a cigarette. "I'll get angry if I'm on a hot streak."

Losing Concentration

Mr. Perkins said that break may persuade gamblers to walk away: "The joy of playing is that you're focused on the game. All of life's hassles disappear, and the rest of the world stops for a little bit. But once you have to get up for the desire to have a cigarette, that's it, you're leaving the zone. You're pulled back into reality. And it's easy to walk away."

At the Joliet Harrah's, smokers gathered in a stark room with uncushioned patio furniture, a few flat-screen TVs and several air purifiers straining against a thickening haze.

Many said they enjoyed the cleaner atmosphere in the casino, and noticed that they save money by smoking and gambling less.

"It gives me a chance to get up and walk around and take a break from playing," said Cindy Beasley, a bookkeeper who had driven about 40 miles from her home near Kankakee, Ill., to the Joliet Harrah's with her husband, Rich, a nuclear-plant worker. "It saves us a little money because we're pausing in the gambling." She smiled, holding an unlit cigarette between her fingers. "It's better this way."

Nearly every seat in the lounge was taken, as smokers sat and stood in silence, sucking in a cigarette or two before heading back to the casino floor.

Applying the Law

Until recently, casinos had persuaded lawmakers to exempt them from state smoking bans. But several grass-roots campaigns, aided by the American Cancer Society and casino employees, fought to get casinos to follow antismoking laws applying to restaurants and bars that had already been passed.

Opponents of smoking argued that smoke-free casinos provide safer and cleaner working environments for casino staff, and noted that casino revenue in Delaware eventually returned to pre-ban growth. They pointed to a study from the University of Nevada, Reno, that said casino workers are exposed to four times as much secondhand smoke as other workers are.

Stephanie Steinberg, chairwoman of Smoke Free Gaming of Colorado, said that in her state, where casino workers aren't unionized, getting smoking banned required unusual tactics.

She and fellow campaigners played at blackjack tables to strike up conversations with dealers and waitresses about secondhand smoke. Soon, her group had persuaded dozens of employees to show up at off-site locations that stayed open until 4 a.m. so they could be tested for nicotine levels in their urine. Ms. Steinberg's group also walked through casinos with personal air-monitoring devices used by asthmatics to measure air quality. They eventually persuaded legislators to extend Colorado's clean-air act, already enforced in restaurants and other public places, to casinos.

Invitation to Flee

In Atlantic City, casinos are now under a partial smoking ban that keeps gamblers from lighting up in 75% of the casino floor. A full ban goes into effect Oct. 15, and it is expected to batter the struggling destination even more as smokers flee to gambling halls in Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

Observers say the real problem is holding onto the high rollers. "How do you tell a guy who comes in and wants to drop $150,000 at a table, how do you tell him he can't have a cigarette?" said Frank Fantini of Fantini Research, in Dover, Del., which studies casinos. "That guy, he'll probably go to Connecticut."

But Connecticut casinos and others may soon be facing challenges. Ms. Steinberg is taking her fight from Colorado to Nevada. Other smoking-ban efforts are under way in Iowa and Missouri. Pennsylvania casinos instituted a closely watched partial smoking ban last week. Casinos in these states are expected to vigorously oppose full smoking bans.

Antismoking activists recently won a surprising new ally in the campaign to ban casino smoking: Atlantic City casino executives.

To create a level playing field, the Casino Association of New Jersey, which fought the Atlantic City ban, is now arguing in favor of smoking bans in other states. In an email statement, the association's president, Joseph Corbo Jr., wrote: "We are hopeful that other nearby gaming jurisdictions, notably Pennsylvania and Connecticut, soon enact smoking bans."

Write to Tamara Audi at [email protected]

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