By James Hammer and the Associated Press
The conventional wisdom that eliminating smoking in casinos would automatically lead to revenue declines and customer losses is going, sorry, up in smoke.
A new report examining how the coronavirus pandemic has changed gamblers’ habits says that may no longer be the case.
The report issued Friday by Las Vegas-based C3 Gaming comes as several states, including New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania, are considering banning smoking in casinos. The research firm says its report was done independently and was not financed by any outside party.
It notes that the pandemic changed several key aspects of the casino experience, including the elimination of daily housekeeping in many places, closing of buffets, and an end to room service — all of which customers have gotten used to. It suggests smoking will be the next such change to be accepted.
“The pandemic altered consumer expectations and consumer behavior in virtually every industry, including retail, entertainment, lodging, dining, and casino gaming. One of those changes [is] in attitudes towards smoking in casinos,” the report’s three authors wrote.
“Data from multiple jurisdictions clearly indicates that banning smoking no longer causes a dramatic drop in gaming revenue,” it read. “In fact, nonsmoking properties appear to be performing better than their counterparts that continue to allow smoking.”
The authors also predicted that smokers will not abandon Atlantic City casinos in droves if New Jersey bans smoking there, noting that due to smoking bans in Connecticut and New York, and a smoke-free policy at Rivers casino Philadelphia, gamblers from New York, New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania would have only four options that offered smoking.
The report is the latest in a back-and-forth over whether there is evidence that smoking can be eliminated without harming casinos’ bottom lines. It also takes aim at a report commissioned in February by New Jersey’s casinos predicting massive revenue and job losses if a smoking ban were implemented.
The stakes are high, particularly in New Jersey, where the main casino workers’ union is threatening a strike in July if new contracts providing big raises are not reached before then.
Gamblers in the northeastern U.S. interviewed by the Associated Press expressed strong support for smoke-free casinos.
“Smokers will say that they aren’t going to go gamble any more if they ban smoking,” said Linda Quinn of Montvale, N.J. “They said this when they made restaurants and bars nonsmoking and it didn’t affect them at all. I honestly believe it will not have an effect, and smokers say that because they don’t want the law changed.”
But they also found that casinos that offer smoking do not perform better than those that don’t allow it. It showed that the Parx Casino in Philadelphia; Empire City in Yonkers, N.Y.; Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, and Resorts World in the Queens section of New York have slot machine win-per-day performance that is greater than those in Atlantic City over the past 12 months.
The Rivers Casino in Philadelphia has been smoke-free since August 2021, when general manager Justin Moore decided it was easier to remain that way rather than changing policy to comply with frequently changing pandemic mandates from the city.
In April, the casino adopted a policy allowing its smoking customers to use a restaurant patio to smoke, avoiding the need to go through metal detectors two additional times in leaving and re-entering the casino.
The financial results have been mixed, with some good months and some where revenue fell short of projections, Moore said, adding that inflation, labor shortages, and new competition nearby make it difficult to attribute revenue performance to any one factor.
The casino decided to remain smoke-free even after it could have resumed smoking, in part, out of the experience of operating during the pandemic.
“It was hard to tell people, ‘We’re keeping you safe,’ and then allow people to blow particles into the air,” he said.